Travel

Omicron Dims London’s Holiday Lights

In November, it was beginning to look a lot like a prepandemic Christmas in London.

Oxford Street, adorned in twinkling festive lights, bustled with tourists and local residents meandering in and out of stores buying gifts. Audiences packed into West End theaters for sold-out shows (masks were not required), and pubs and restaurants were filled with jolly patrons attending quiz nights and holiday parties.

Then came the highly contagious Omicron variant of the coronavirus, which Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain described as a “tidal wave” causing infections in the country to double every two to three days. It has brought the government’s current daily estimate of new cases to around 200,000, from a low of around 2,200 in May.

The effect on the hospitality industry was almost immediate, with restaurants reporting high volumes of cancellations, theaters canceling shows and holiday office parties being rescheduled. For international travelers, the new rash of cases has sparked concern and confusion, made worse by conflicting messages from the British government.

On Dec. 12, then country raised the coronavirus alert level to four out of five, indicating a high or rising level of transmission. “People should be prioritizing those things, and only those things that really matter to them,” said Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, at a news conference on Wednesday. “Don’t mix with people you don’t have to.”

But Mr. Johnson didn’t seem to have gotten the message. “We’re not canceling events, we’re not closing hospitality, we’re not canceling people’s parties or their ability to mix,” he said the same day.

While many Americans have canceled their bookings, others who have grown tired of pandemic restrictions, are desperate for a change of scene or to reconnect with loved ones face a conundrum.

“Our trip to London is less than a week away, and we still haven’t canceled because we are dying to go. We need this for our mental health,” said Lynsey Potter, 62, a reflexologist from Chicago who spent her first Christmas apart from her daughter and grandson last year because of travel restrictions between the United Kingdom and United States, which have since been lifted.

Like many travelers experiencing pandemic fatigue, Ms. Potter is more concerned about the prospect of Britain reintroducing travel restrictions than of the virus itself. “I have good armor against the virus with my three vaccines,” she said. “I’m not too worried about that, but I have no control over the travel rules, and I don’t think I would survive a hotel quarantine. If I decide to bail on the trip that’s why.”

Indeed, Joan Roca, chief executive officer and founder of Essentialist, an international member-only travel service, said that while the earlier waves of the pandemic were seen first and foremost as health crises, “now it’s a restriction crisis which has a much different impact on business.”

In late November, Britain reintroduced a requirement that international travelers test negative before their trip, and then take an additional PCR test within two days of arrival. Visitors must self-isolate until they receive a negative result, causing some travelers to cancel because they found the rules too cumbersome.

And even as the government last week removed all the remaining countries from its red travel list, which required travelers to undergo a 10-day mandatory hotel quarantine at a cost of $3,030 per person, some travelers worry that countries could be reinstated on short notice with Omicron spreading around the world

Camilla Ferrera, a freelance media director from Westport Conn., had planned to fly to London on Dec. 20 with her partner and two children to reunite with friends and family. Instead, “I made the decision to cancel my trip yesterday because of the number of tests we would need to take (1 before departure, 1 within 2 days of arrival, 1 within 24 hours of returning),” she wrote in an email.

“And the increased risk of exposure to Covid, specifically Omicron, it didn’t feel sensible even though we are all triple vaccinated,” she added.

Britain’s hospitality and tourism sectors had hoped for a boost over the traditionally popular holiday season.Credit…Niklas Halle’N/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

‘Here we go again’

Britain’s hospitality and tourism sectors had hoped for a boost over the traditionally popular holiday season. Instead, flight bookings from the United States to the United Kingdom fell by 33 percent in the two weeks after news of the Omicron variant broke, compared to the two weeks prior, according to Visit Britain, the national tourism agency. The number of bookings made between Nov. 29 and Dec. 5 was down by 63 percent compared to the same week in 2019, it said.

“I feel a sense of dread, but also a sense of ‘Here we go again,’’ said Charley Harrison, 33, owner of Totally Tailored, a sightseeing tour operator in London and Edinburgh. With a business heavily reliant on American visitors, Ms. Harrison has already had 15 cancellations in December alone, with three booked tours remaining before Christmas.

“I’m seriously thinking about whether there is a future I can really rely on in tourism,” she said.

Mr. Roca of Essentialist said about 20 to 25 percent of his company’s travelers who had booked trips to London decided to cancel and reroute to other destinations. Virtuoso, the large network of luxury travel advisers, is seeing a similar trend with its clients pivoting to destinations like Italy, Mexico and Hawaii.

To make the testing process easier for international travelers and discourage them from canceling their trips, major London hotels like The Savoy and Brown’s Hotel are providing concierge services for testing and other travel requirements. Brown’s will even have a nurse meet passengers at the airport and administer the coronavirus test there, to reduce the waiting time for the results at the hotel.

“We are making it as effortless as possible,” said Franck Arnold, the managing director and regional vice-president at The Savoy.

The Coronavirus Pandemic: Key Things to Know


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A new U.S. surge. The C.D.C said that the Omicron variant’s rapid spread in the U.S. may portend a surge in infections as soon as January, but cases are already spiking, leading offices to cancel holiday parties, Broadway performances to be shuttered and college finals to be moved online.

The Omicron variant. The new Covid variant has been detected in dozens of countries. While Omicron appears to be able to partially evade antibodies, it could be less severe than other forms of the virus, and new laboratory studies indicate that vaccines, and especially boosters, may offer protection against severe disease.

The J.&J. vaccine. An expert panel to the C.D.C. voted to recommend that Covid vaccines other than Johnson & Johnson’s should be preferred, citing increasing evidence that those shots trigger a rare but potentially serious blood clotting disorder.

U.S. surpasses 800,000 deaths. Covid deaths in the United States surpassed 800,000 — the highest known number of any country. About 75 percent of the 800,000 deaths have involved people 65 or older. One in 100 older Americans has died from the virus.

The Savoy organizes tests for travelers in their hotel rooms, after check-in, and results, Mr. Arnold said, come within a few hours.

“Life is open in London,” he said. “Travelers just have to deal with the administrative mandates.”

Louise Liddle, an independent video producer from New York, stuck with her Christmas plans to fly to London last week to visit friends and go sightseeing, over the strong objections of her family back home.

“I just had to get out, I don’t think London is any riskier than New York,” she said, although after a few close encounters with the virus in recent days she is being more conservative with her itinerary.

“I had dinner with some friends and then four people tested positive. Then I was going to go to a play, and it got canceled because of a Covid outbreak. It does feel like it’s kind of everywhere right now,” she said. “I’ve stopped going to indoor restaurants and big gatherings and am considering canceling plans for Christmas.”

Restaurants in London are experiencing significant cancellations, causing some to temporarily close. The chef Tom Kerridge, who owns six restaurants in London, Manchester and Buckinghamshire, said he received 654 cancellations for one restaurant over a 6-day period.

“That’s only the beginning,” he said. “It will only get worse now that new announcements have been made. It’s not only a reflection of one of our spaces but a reflection of the hospitality industry as a whole.”

Despite the current downturn, there is still hope within the industry for the year ahead. “We know there is significant pent-up demand to travel internationally and for us it’s a big year next year,” said Paul Gauger, the senior vice president of the Americas at Visit Britain, pointing to big events like the Queen’s platinum Jubilee.

When Visit Britain surveyed American travelers in October — before the emergence of Omicron — to assess their feelings about travel, it found that 80 percent of Americans surveyed were considering taking an international trip in the next 12 months and 58 percent said they definitely would. These intentions were higher than what was recorded in the first and second waves of research, demonstrating a continuous growth in intention to travel,” Mr. Gauger said.

Ms. Potter, the Chicago traveler who is debating canceling, is one of those who says she will definitely get to London at some point. “If I don’t make my trip next week I’ll go at least twice next year,” she said. “There’s no place like London, especially at Christmas. There’s so much lost time to make up for.”

Amy Tara Koch and Geneva Abdul contributed reporting.

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