En español | Travel restrictions around the world continue to expand in response to rising alarm over the newly identified omicron variant of the coronavirus. The variant was initially detected in South Africa in early November, and the World Health Organization (WHO) declared it a "variant of concern" on Nov. 26. These new restrictions come just as many countries were reopening their borders to international visitors.
WHO says the omicron strain is spreading quickly in South Africa, where less than a quarter of the population is fully vaccinated, and now it's been identified in a rapidly rising number of patients across Europe and beyond — including in Australia, Canada and the U.S.
Health officials are concerned because the variant has a large number of mutations that could make it more infectious than early variants. Studies are underway to understand how easily it spreads and whether it is receptive to the current COVID-19 vaccines.
In the meantime, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is continuing to urge everyone 5 and older to get vaccinated and for everyone eligible (adults age 18 and up) to also get their vaccine booster dose. The CDC also announced that it would be expanding COVID-19 testing in four of the U.S.'s largest international airports — in Atlanta and San Francisco, plus two in New York — for the purposes of "enhancing our surveillance for the omicron variant," CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said during a White House briefing on Tuesday.
New U.S. travel restrictions
To prevent omicron’s further spread, the U.S. (along with many other nations) has banned arrivals from South Africa and seven other African countries, including Botswana, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. The U.S. State Department raised its alert level for Americans considering travel to those countries to level 4 (“do not travel”).
And the White House announced new rules for international travelers: Starting next week, all travelers — regardless of vaccination status or nationality — arriving from international locations need to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within one day of their flight to the U.S. (Before this announcement, fully vaccinated U.S. travelers could offer tests taken within three days of their flight home.)
Non-U.S. citizens are still required to show proof of vaccination to visit the U.S.
The federal government is also extending the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) rule requiring all travelers to wear face coverings on airplanes, buses and rail systems, as well as in airports and bus and train stations, through the winter — until at least March 18. Fines for noncompliance will double, from a minimum of $500 to up to $3,000 for repeat offenses.
New international travel restrictions
Many other countries are banning travelers from southern African countries. Japan, Morocco and Israel announced temporary bans on all foreign travelers due to the threat of omicron.
While Japan has been closed to international tourism since early in the pandemic, it had planned to begin opening to foreign students — a move that’s now on hold indefinitely. Morocco has banned all flights in and out of the country for two weeks. Israel, where two people have tested positive for the omicron strain, has blocked all incoming flights and requires returning Israelis to quarantine for two weeks.
Australia also has delayed its planned reopening to students (and certain other groups) until at least Dec. 15.
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What it means for U.S. travelers
Travel planning has been a somewhat fraught exercise in recent months, but omicron now makes it even more so. Many travelers appear to be taking a wait-and-see approach, says Dan Austin, founder of the Montana-based tour company Austin Adventures, which requires all travelers and staff members on its trips to be fully vaccinated. “We field a lot of calls and we have to answer a lot of questions,” he notes. His advice to travelers is: “Don’t overreact. The pandemic is going to keep evolving, but we continue to remain optimistic that we can keep our travelers safe.”
Austin adds that if one of the company's trips is canceled, travelers can opt for a full refund or reschedule for a trip at another time or place at no extra cost.
Melbourne, Australia-based Intrepid Travel has the same cancelation policies and vaccination requirements, and so far the only destination where Intrepid’s tours have been canceled due to omicron is Morocco, which has closed to travel until at least mid-December, according to company CEO James Thornton. He thinks it's unlikely that omicron will be a game changer for the travel industry, especially with more businesses offering the ever-more-crucial flexible booking policies and vaccination mandates — which he knows firsthand are musts in the unpredictable pandemic era. Thornton is currently in quarantine in Britain with a very mild case of COVID-19 (he’s fully vaccinated), after testing positive before a flight home to Australia. “There is no post-COVID,” he says. “This is the new normal.”
Christina Ianzito is the travel and books editor for aarp.org and AARP The Magazine, and also edits and writes health, entertainment and other stories for aarp.org. She received a 2020 Lowell Thomas Award for travel writing.