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NEW DELHI : India’s battered outbound tourism sector is likely to witness further travel cancellations, as more foreign governments clamp down to keep the Omicron variant of the coronavirus at bay. Thailand has temporarily suspended the Thailand Pass, while Singapore will freeze all new flight ticket sales under its programme for quarantine-free travel from 23 December to 20 January.

The Thailand Pass is a system to make the documentation process of incoming travellers more efficient, and was also used to monitor tourists.

The developments are set to impact the outbound international travel season, with many companies reporting cancellations.

Travellers to Thailand need to take an RT-PCR test every two days. Thailand is not allowing people to enter the country except for those going to Phuket, said Cholada Siddhivarn, the Mumbai office director of Tourism Authority of Thailand. “The step comes in the wake of a rise in cases of the new variant of coronavirus. People wanting to travel to Phuket can register for Thailand Pass under the Phuket Sandbox programme and Happy Quarantine," Siddhivarn said.

However, this is not enough, say local travel operators. Delhi-based Welgrow Travel, which focuses primarily on designing itineraries for wealthy travellers, has been seeing many cancellations. All of Welgrow’s holiday traffic to Europe for the winter has been cancelled because of the spread of the Omicron variant, said managing director Radhika Khanijo.

“Had Singapore and Thailand opened up completely, it would have been a blessing for us at this time when we are having to cancel so many trips to Europe. However, now our entire travel traffic is diverted to Maldives and Dubai as it had been during the first covid wave. While these two countries remain strong, I don’t know how long travel companies can sustain themselves on such little business," she said.

Singaporeans and permanent residents holding on to tickets will not be affected by this, but international travel will be hampered. Thailand and Singapore have been very strict about their RT-PCR tests, she said. “We sent one family to Singapore recently but they needed to get themselves tested every morning. It is not possible to send tourists to such places where they have to worry about tests every 24 hours," Khanijo said.

Thomas Cook (India) has received updates on temporary steps being taken as a precautionary measure by a few international authorities, and will continue to closely monitor the situation, said Rajeev Kale, the company’s president and country head, holidays, MICE, Visa. Most of Thomas Cook’s international travel demand is for the Maldives, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sri Lanka, Egypt and Turkey. Luxury travellers have shown interest in France and Switzerland also.

N Chirag Travels has been getting outbound travel cancellation requests over the past week, said Riaz Munshi, managing director of the company and president of the Outbound Tour Operators Association of India.

As most of these were charters and bubble flights, this could be a knee-jerk reaction where countries want less travellers during the festive season and then choose to open up their borders later, he said. “If cases do not increase or are not as severe, most countries will open borders after the second week of January. Protocols are changing every day and people are afraid of being quarantined in a foreign country due to the changing rules in different countries; Indians are more inclined to travel domestically or to Dubai and Maldives for the festive season," he said.

Khanijo said she does not expect a drop in cases at the moment due to Omicron. “Travel is the first to get hit and the last to recover," she said.

If covid does not hurt further, India’s outbound tourism market is on track to surpass $40 billion by 2026 with a double-digit growth rate during 2021-2026, according to ResearchandMarkets.com.

“While travel momentum to Singapore was yet to pick up pace, we were noticing a steady increase in searches for leisure travel bookings to Thailand. In fact, our recently launched air charter holiday service together with Go First to Phuket received a great response. As part of our existing partnership with Tourism Authority of Thailand, we will continue to fly tourists under the Sandbox programme to Phuket for Christmas and New Year’s. However in light of the evolving situation, we do foresee travellers postponing their international travel plans," said a MakeMyTrip spokesperson

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