By Sajeev K Peter

KUWAIT: Kuwait's travel industry remains largely unfazed in the face of the new Omicron coronavirus variant and continues on its path to full recovery from the devastating effect of the pandemic that has paralyzed the world for almost two years, local industry experts said. "There were some initial concerns and panic in the industry. We had some sudden cancellations of bookings as well. But concerns about the potential effect of the new variant lasted only for two days, and everything has become normal now," said Anasuddin Azeez, a travel professional working at a travel agency in downtown Kuwait.

The new variant ignited concerns around the world and triggered new travel bans after it was detected in South Africa. The United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and the European Union announced almost immediate travel bans from South Africa and other southern African nations. Kuwait's government also warned citizens against non-essential travel and suspended direct flights from nine African countries following the detection of the variant.

"It was much ado about nothing. The fear over the 'dubious' Omicron variant was unwarranted. The virus may be fast-spreading, but we haven't heard any report of mortalities from the virus yet. We need to be cautious, but no need for panic," a travel executive told Kuwait Times on condition of anonymity.

Civilian flights are operating normally from Kuwait as of now, barring a few cancellations to some African destinations. Kuwait Airways announced that it will regularly review its flight schedules in light of the emerging COVID-19 situation. It said passengers are required to check the status of their planned flights for the latest information before making their way to the airport.

The local travel sector has begun to bounce back after a two-year long hiatus due to the global pandemic. According to unofficial estimates, recovery in the travel and tourism sector reached nearly 80 percent of pre-COVID levels as of Oct-Nov 2021. "The industry is in recovery mode. Not only the airline sector, but related sectors such as hospitality and service sectors are also witnessing a recovery. The recovery is also helping a considerable amount of job creation in the local market. I don't think this variant will have any serious repercussions on the travel industry. We have overcome the worst," said Faizal Ahmad, another travel professional in Salmiya.

Many travel agents who spoke to Kuwait Times said people have overcome initial apprehensions about the new virus and are going ahead with their travel plans. Local airlines are reporting a spike in sales volumes. Hotel chains, resorts, function halls and restaurants across the country are also witnessing a noticeable spike in bookings and as the holiday season approaches the trend is expected to pick up, they said. The country's tour operators are also reporting a jump in bookings for holiday packages, leisure trips and cruise ship reservations.

"It is interesting to note that a large number of citizens are opting for holiday packages from the new year onwards to destinations such as UAE, Georgia, Turkey and Spain. Some people may be postponing their travel for the time being, but nobody is cancelling their plans. Some prefer to travel in the new year as they want to see how the impact of new virus is going to evolve," said Thomas Abraham, an executive working with a travel and tourism company in Kuwait. "I don't think this new variant is going to dampen the holiday mood of the people and derail the travel industry's recovery momentum."