Coronavirus pandemic opens the door to the age of travel restrictions

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Even as the COVID-19 pandemic recedes in the U.S., international travel remains highly restricted — and looks to stay that way for the foreseeable future.

The big picture: The ease of international travel has always depended on wealth and the kind of passport you own, but the geopolitical fracturing accelerated by the pandemic seems likely to make borders less permeable for all of us.

By the numbers: Globally, international arrivals plunged by 73% in 2020 from pre-pandemic levels in 2019, causing estimated losses of $2.4 trillion in tourism and related sectors, according to a report released Wednesday by the United States.

  • “The outlook for this year doesn’t look much better,” Ralf Peters of the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development told reporters at a news conference.
  • International tourism today is basically “at the level of the 1980s,” said Zoritsa Urosevic, Geneva representative of the U.N. World Tourism Organization.

Be smart: It’s not that people don’t want to travel as they become vaccinated against COVID-19 — AAA projects that 47 million Americans plan to travel over the July 4 weekend, with expectations of the highest auto-volume travel on record.

  • It’s that they can’t — or at least, for the most part, not internationally.

Between the lines: Nowhere is the difficult new reality of international travel clearer than along the longest undefended land border in the world: the 49th parallel that separates the U.S. and Canada, a border that was crossed by some 15 million Americans annually before the pandemic.

  • In mid-June, citing the spread of more transmissible variants of SARS-CoV-2, Canada extended pandemic-long restrictions on nonessential travel to the country until at least July 21.
  • At the once-bustling land crossing at Niagara Falls in New York, just 1.7 million Americans entered Canada by personal vehicle in 2020, compared to 10.5 million in 2019.
  • Elsewhere in the world, countries like Australia, China and New Zealand remain almost entirely cut off to arrivals.

The other side: While the movement of people across borders has been heavily restricted, the movement of goods largely continued, with global trade falling just 5.6% in 2020.

Context: Before COVID-19, most health experts and the World Health Organization were largely opposed to instituting border restrictions during a pandemic, viewing them as both discriminatory and potentially counter-productive because they could drive spread underground.

  • But it wasn’t long after SARS-CoV-2 began spreading globally that country after country began shutting or restricting borders in an effort to slow down the pandemic.
  • Evidence shows that travel restrictions were somewhat effective in slowing the spread of the virus in the early stages of the pandemic, though their effectiveness lessened as the pandemic dragged on.

What’s next: The U.N. report predicts that international arrivals will recover faster in countries with higher vaccination coverage, but that overall numbers won’t return to pre-pandemic levels until 2023 or later.

  • Public opinion will play a role as well, with many populations still heavily supportive of keeping bans in place.
  • A May survey found that 86% of Canadians were strongly or somewhat in support of closing the border to anyone from another country, with similar numbers in Australia and New Zealand.
  • Now that COVID-19 has put the once-unthinkable option of border closures on the table, governments will likely be tempted to use them again in the future.

The bottom line: The economic deglobalization that some — including me — predicted early in the pandemic never materialized as goods kept moving, but we’re still a long way from the free movement of people.

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