Little is known about the new variant, dubbed Omicron, including how it will impact those infected or the levels of efficacy vaccines provide against it.
For those hoping the worst of the pandemic was in the rear view mirror and they could finally plan some long-overdue getaways abroad, the news comes as a harsh blow and raises multiple questions.
Here are some of the biggest ones that might be on travelers’ minds right now.
How are countries responding to the new variant?
Would-be travelers could be forgiven for feeling a bit of déjà vu right now. The dash to introduce new entry restrictions and cancel flights bears stark similarities to the global freeze on travel that crushed the international tourism community when Covid-19 began to spread in early 2020.
Cases of Omicron have been found on multiple continents, with countries including Germany, Canada, Italy, Israel and Hong Kong all reporting cases as of Monday morning. But the majority of the new restrictions are focused on countries in southern Africa.
For instance, New Zealand is now banning travel from nine southern African countries due to concerns over the new Omicron variant: South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Seychelles, Malawi and Mozambique.
Only New Zealand citizens are allowed to travel from these countries.
Some countries are canceling flights entirely from several southern Africa countries, while others are imposing new quarantine restrictions on travelers arriving via certain destinations.
Japan has taken a more stringent approach and, as of November 30, will close to any non-citizens, including international students or people visiting family.
I’m not traveling through Africa. Are my plans at risk?
Several countries are bringing in extra testing regimes.
James D. Morgan/Getty Images
The situation is incredibly fluid right now. As noted above, cases are already appearing in countries elsewhere, from Canada to Australia, meaning further restrictions could be imminent.
With few exceptions, governments in most countries are allowing citizens and permanent residents from the southern Africa countries to return home.
As we saw in 2020, the situation can change quickly, so travelers are advised to keep abreast of the latest news.
STEP sends out important information from the embassy about safety conditions in specific destinations and allows embassy officials to contact you in the event of an emergency.
How long will these restrictions last?
It’s too soon to tell.
The US is restricting travel from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi starting Monday, US administration officials told CNN.
President Joe Biden told the press he had “decided we’re going to be cautious” about the variant. “We don’t know a lot about the variant except that it is a big concern and seems to spread rapidly,” he said.
This appears to be the case in other countries, with the aim of slowing the spread of infections as they work to figure out just how severe this new, reportedly more infectious variant is and whether vaccines afford much protection.
How should I be thinking about Omicron in terms of travel safety?
There’s still a lot scientists don’t yet know about the new coronavirus variant, but the best thing anyone can do right now is to get vaccinated, according to Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
Getting vaccinated is essential for two reasons, he said.
The first is the Delta variant. “That’s the virus that’s here, right now, in each and every community, spreading,” Schaffner said. “But No. 2, and this has to do with Omicron, it is likely that our vaccines will provide at least partial protection. And partial protection is always better than no protection.”
The other essential safety measure is still wearing a mask when you’re out in public.
Schaffner’s advice on traveling is largely the same as it was before the discovery of the new variant.
Make sure you’re vaccinated, wear a mask, socially distance as much as possible while you’re traveling and carefully consider what you’re going to do when you get there, which likely puts you at greater risk than the journey itself.
“If everybody’s going to hug and kiss and take off their masks, fine. But you have to have a rule, you have to discuss this with your relatives or friends,” Schaffner said. “That means everybody’s got to be vaccinated, and you could do what our family did before Thanksgiving: we all got a test. And so not only are we vaccinated and boosted, but we tested negative. Now if you start taking control like that, then you can do your travel and your reunions and your social events at very low risk.”
Is there a health reason at this point to cancel plans, like a trip to New York, for example?
“Not on my account, but remember, I am a very careful traveler,” Schaffner said.
“I’m vaccinated and boosted. I would not wish to go to New York to a meeting unless I had a conversation with everybody on the front end and said ‘I’m not going to show up in New York unless everybody at that meeting is vaccinated.’ So you’re entitled to lay down some rules for yourself, and for the people with whom you’re going to be in contact.”
A trip that involves a lot of shopping and going to the theater, eating in crowded restaurants and going to your favorite New York City bar is a different story.
“If you want to do all that, yes, you’re assuming more risk, but that’s really got nothing to do with Omicron. That has to do with Delta right now,” Schaffner said.
I’ve already booked international holiday travel plans. Should I cancel?
For those who have booked international travel for the upcoming winter holiday season, the timing is indeed unfortunate.
At the moment, it’s too early to tell whether the new variant will lead to further international travel restrictions.
Experts say those who have weighed the risks and decide to book would be wise to ensure they have a comprehensive Covid-19 insurance plan in place to compensate for all possibilities and make sure their airline/hotel has a flexible cancellation policy.
“What’s most crucial is to really pay attention to flexible booking policies,” Rory Boland, travel editor at UK consumer magazine Which? tells CNN.
“Lots of holiday companies and airlines have them, but there’s a huge amount of difference in what they do and don’t cover.
“Some will cover for almost any eventuality if restrictions are introduced even in the country you’re going to. They will rebook you for free. Others cover very little, while prominently advertising flexible booking.
“So book with a holiday company or airline with a truly flexible policy and take out comprehensive travel insurance covered against almost any change. What travelers want is peace of mind — that’s how you get it.”
Will these travel bans and restrictions actually work?
Travelers are advised to get insurance to cover Covid-related issues.
Phill Magakoe/AFP/Getty Images
As noted, governments are trying to buy time as they figure out the potential impact of Omicron.
But the restrictions are being criticized by some officials as unfair and ineffective. The WHO Regional Office for Africa said Sunday that it stands with African nations and called for borders to remain open as an increasing number of countries around the world impose flight bans.
The office said countries should take a risk-based and scientific approach and put in place measures that can limit its possible spread.
“Putting in place travel bans that target Africa attacks global solidarity,” WHO Regional Director for Africa Matshidiso Moeti said.
“Covid-19 constantly exploits our divisions. We will only get the better of the virus if we work together for solutions.” Travel restrictions may play a role in slightly reducing the spread of Covid-19 but “place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods.”
Meanwhile, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) warned against travel bans, stressing such restrictions are “not a long-term solution” when it comes to managing coronavirus variants.
“Governments are responding to the risks of the new coronavirus variant in emergency mode causing fear among the traveling public. As quickly as possible we must use the experience of the last two years to move to a coordinated data-driven approach that finds safe alternatives to border closures and quarantine,” said IATA Director General Willie Walsh in a statement.
Includes reporting from CNN’s Marnie Hunter, Laura Smith-Spark, Ivana Kottasová, Caitlin McGee, Martin Goillandeau , Sharon Braithwaite and Julia Buckley.