Bank proposes approach for tourism rebuild

The World Bank has proposed a three-phase system for reopening global travel to the Pacific in a bid to help the region rebuild its ailing tourism industry.  

In a recent report, the multilateral bank suggests that by July 2021, the Pacific could be establishing secure “travel bubbles” for specific types of travellers, like temporary workers and students.

In the year following, commercial tourism could kick off, building flight paths for business and tourism, and maintaining secure COVID-19 systems.

This would require an “initial roll-out” of COVID-19 vaccines too, the World Bank suggests. By October 2021, a long term plan can begin, with widespread vaccination and highly efficient testing and tracing systems.

The report states labour mobility poses a “triple win” for Pacific Island workers, their economies and those of Australia and New Zealand, joining the Asian Development Bank who made the same recommendation earlier this month. 

“We highly recommend it be prioritized in phase one.”

A country’s ability to test, treat and trace for COVID-19 is critical to whether and when to open to international travel, with the vaccine decidedly not a silver bullet to reopening.

The World Bank has found the ease of travel restrictions is directly connected to how well a country can test for the virus, treat patients and trace potentially exposed people.

Either way, it is a “calculated risk,” the bank writes.

“World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that COVID-19 may never be eliminated and that it could take four or five years before the virus is under control,” the report writes.

The writers recommend the already existing Pacific Humanitarian Pathway, which was established by Pacific Island Forum countries to keep medical supplies and humanitarian assistance moving despite closed borders. 

Countries could start with small groups of specific types of travellers like seasonal workers, international students, aid workers and some business travellers to start on their path to reopening borders safely.

“Permitting small groups of international travellers allows authorities to effectively ‘pilot’ their  procedures and protocols and make rapid adjustments, before opening-up international travel to larger numbers of travellers.”

Ensuring these procedures are up to scratch is among the potential costs of later building a regional travel bubble that includes Australia and New Zealand, or other countries like Taiwan and China.

Eventually, groups from safe countries should not have to do two weeks of quarantine, and instead some period of isolation could be done before arrival, the bank suggests.

And when it comes to seasonal work, risk-averse countries like Australia and New Zealand should consider opening up to help the island nations’ economies recover.

“While the Australian and New Zealand governments are understandably concerned about the possibility that a traveller infected with the virus could enter [the Pacific Islands] and cause a domestic outbreak, bringing temporary workers to Australia and New Zealand under existing key regional labour mobility programs is arguably a much lower risk.

“This is because domestic transmission has been contained (Fiji) or avoided (the rest of the PICs) and because the strong health system capacity in Australia and New Zealand could quickly isolate an imported COVID-19 case.

“The key constraint to the number of temporary workers leaving each nation is likely to be the quarantine requirements and capacities of each of the PICs when workers return. 

“It will be important for  PICs’ governments to begin planning for the recommencement of labour mobility, to ensure that the number and timing of returning workers is calibrated to the nation’s quarantine requirements (in terms of duration) and capacities (in terms of facilities).”

Because “normal” levels of travel will not be likely until late next year, the World Bank believes the economies of the Pacific are likely to be depressed for another 18 months at the most.

It is issuing a “second phase” of COVID-19 support to the region, including a new US$25 million grant to boost Samoa’s social and economic response and recovery to the pandemic.

The funds are partly a US$15 upfront grant, with a second grant of $10 million available for withdrawal if there is a significant natural disaster.

It is the second World Bank grant Samoa has received this year, following a $5.1 million grant provided in March 2020 in the earliest months of the pandemic.

Samoa has not yet announced how and when it plans to vaccinate its population. Several options are available to it, with the global facility COVAX preparing to buy 20 per cent of the population the vaccine when it is available.

Earlier this month, New Zealand announced it has 7.6 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which will cover 3.8 million people; and another for 10.72 million doses of a vaccine from Novovax, enough for 5.36 million people.

This is going to cover Samoa too, if Samoa accepts it, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said. The Government has not made a public response as yet.

And while parts of the world are already vaccinating people, countries like New Zealand and Samoa are awaiting approval of their local regulators.

In New Zealand that authority lies with Medsafe, while in Samoa it rests with the World Health Organisation. 

In early December, W.H.O. director of immunisation, vaccines and biologicals Professor Katherine O’Brien told National Geographic it is undergoing vaccine review processes along the same timetable as the European Medicines Agency.

They plan to make their approvals by the end of 2020.

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