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Despite Pandemic, Some Regional States Resuming Air Traffic

Economic experts laud moves, saying cost of coronavirus closures too high

Arab countries, particularly those heavily dependent on tourism such as Dubai, Egypt and Lebanon, are taking varying approaches when loosening the closures they imposed on their borders and airports to fight COVID-19.

Dubai, the most populous of the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates, reopened its doors to visitors on July 7. The reopening came despite the UAE’s decision to prevent its residents from traveling abroad and bar foreigners from freely entering its borders.

Dubai is home-base to Emirates, the largest airline in the Middle East and the world’s fourth-largest carrier by scheduled passenger-miles. Emirates has set out a number of health and safety measures for relaunching scheduled flights.

Complimentary hygiene kits will be given to every passenger upon check-in at Dubai International Airport and on flights to Dubai. The kits consist of masks, gloves, antibacterial wipes and hand sanitizer.

Gloves and masks are now mandatory for all customers and employees at the airport in Dubai, while only masks are mandated on Emirates flights.

On arrival at the airport, thermal scanners at various areas monitor the temperatures of all passengers and employees. In addition, physical-distancing indicators have been placed on the ground and at waiting areas to help travelers maintain the necessary distance at check-in, immigration, boarding and transfer areas.

Mohammed Yasin, chief strategy officer at Al Dhabi Capital, told The Media Line that there was pressure to accelerate the reopening of the tourism and hospitality sectors.

This, he says, “will lead to the restart of [operations by] hotels, the airport and shopping malls, which are very important aspects of Dubai’s economy.”

Yasin says that prior to the pandemic, tourism and related sectors accounted for “approximately 40%” of the emirate’s GDP.

He insists that Dubai has the coronavirus crisis under control, its health sector having the capacity to treat patients.

“Field hospitals were opened to increase the capacity of the health system, and when the number of cases started decreasing, some of these hospitals closed. It therefore became important to reopen the tourism sector,” he explains.

The decision was related to research into the balance between risk and benefits.

“Now the weight of the benefit has become greater than the risk,” he says.

Now the weight of the benefit has become greater than the risk

On July 1, Egypt reopened its airports for the first time since March. Even though June saw more new cases and deaths than the previous four months combined, the government decided to discontinue many measures taken to contain the virus in order to save the economy.

EgyptAir has announced that passengers need to wear facemasks at all times, starting upon entry to the airport, while all employees will wear personal protective equipment (PPE), including face shields, and be regularly screened for temperature.

Travelers’ temperatures will be measured as well. There are spacing stickers on the floor to help travelers maintain a safe distance from one another.

EgyptAir recently repatriated more than 5,000 Egyptians from abroad, and the Tourism Ministry reopened monuments, among them the Pyramids of Giza and the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

Mohammed Farhat, an analyst at the Al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies, told The Media Line that the government’s decision was well-considered given the crippling costs of closure.

“Many Arab and international countries have made similar decisions because we can’t remain under closure – it’s an exceptional situation due to exceptional circumstances,” he says.

Many Arab and international countries have made similar decisions because we can’t remain under closure – it’s an exceptional situation due to exceptional circumstances

The Egyptian decision is part of a global trend to keep economies open so people can continue to support their families, he adds.

“Global [financial] reserves for exceptional situations are limited,” he notes. “Every country has reserves to cover months of revenue and domestic spending in exceptional situations, but these can’t be exhausted for a single crisis.”

It is very important, he continues, to preserve international reserves for future crises.

“Even countries that have huge reserves didn’t risk them, as we can’t exhaust these global reserves for one closure because of the coronavirus. Countries must have reserves for other urgent crises,” he says.

Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport reopened for flights at 10% of capacity on July 1, with strict safety and hygiene measures in place.

Facemasks are mandatory for passengers and aircrew inside the terminal and on the planes. All travelers are required to bring a sufficient number of masks and to change them every four hours. They must also bring their own hand sanitizer.

Jassem Ajaka, a professor of economics at the Lebanese University, feels the decision to reopen the airport is significant not because it will help the tourism sector, but because more foreign currency will enter the country.

“A large number of people infected with COVID-19 enter Lebanon through the airport. Therefore, keeping the airport closed would be the safest thing, but when there’s a daily loss of about $30 million a day [in tourism revenue], there’s a big problem,” he told The Media Line.

Lebanon has been suffering from a suffocating dollar liquidity crisis, which is one of the factors behind the country’s ongoing street protests. Prior to its reopening, the airport was open to expatriates who brought dollars needed to support the Lebanese pound and pay for food imports.

“Lebanon can no longer go without foreign currency,” he says. “Despite the increase in coronavirus cases, the currency is essential for the country.”

Lebanon can no longer go without foreign currency. Despite the increase in coronavirus cases, the currency is essential for the country

In Jordan, the government announced this week that the country would start reopening its borders and airports to international travelers in August after a four-month closure.

In an effort to minimize the risk, there will be a list of approved countries. Additionally, incoming travelers must pass a coronavirus test at least 72 hours before departure and take a second test upon arrival.

The kingdom is considered a safe area, given the government’s success in controlling the spread of the virus.

Mazen Irshaid, an Amman-based financial expert who writes for several Arab media outlets, says tourism is important as it accounted for 10% of Jordan’s gross domestic product prior to the pandemic.

“When the tourism sector revives, it will positively reflect on other sectors that aren’t directly linked to it, such as transportation, hospitality, catering and other income-generating sectors,” he told The Media Line.

When the tourism sector revives, it will positively reflect on other sectors that aren’t directly linked to it, such as transportation, hospitality, catering and other income-generating sectors

He notes that more than a million tourists visited Jordan last year.

“Based on recent statements by officials, the reopening will be gradual and from certain low-risk countries, and according to criteria determined by the state,” Irshaid says.

The tourism sector had seen significant growth in recent years, particularly after relative stability was achieved vis-à-vis neighboring Syria and Iraq, he says.

“The coronavirus epidemic returned us to square one,” he adds. “It negatively affected not only tourism and its related factors, but also the economy in general.”

Prof. Yaniv Poria, chairman of the Department of Hotel and Tourism Management at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, told The Media Line that many travel companies in the region have had major problems with sinking revenues and therefore will be forced to raise prices substantially.

“You have to take into consideration that travel companies don’t actually make money from selling the tickets alone, but from selling vacation packages and hotels as part of a deal,” he said. “I’m sure that after the coronavirus finishes, the prices will even be much higher.”

Travel companies will have to start thinking outside the box to find ways to stay in business, Poria says.

“Maybe they should plan for cargo and passengers to travel in the same plane. Normally we have planes for cargo and planes for passengers. Maybe we need to dedicate sections for cargo and other sections of the same plane for passengers,” he said.

“They have to be creative in order to make it profitable,” he added.

They have to be creative in order to make it profitable

Poria notes that airlines will need to stick to standards and procedures to maintain quality of service.

“In the past, travel was an experience and an adventure that people looked forward to with anticipation,” he explained. “Now it will be less and less like that. The service will not be the same. Passengers will be highly skeptical not only about the quality of service, but regarding how clean the plane will be, and also about the other passengers.”

Insurance will be another major factor when deciding whether to fly and with which airline, Poria says, especially since many flights are being canceled nowadays, and many customers are having trouble getting their money back.

“The companies that are financially strong and able to… compensate passengers in case a flight is canceled are the companies that will succeed,” he stated. “Going forward, the issue of flight insurance and compensation will play a substantial role.”

Trust will also be paramount to the future of tourism, as people will start choosing an airline based on how well they think it follows safety procedures.

“Many will opt to fly only with airlines that they judge to be stringent in ensuring the health and safety of their crews and passengers,” he said.

There could also be instances in which flights take off only if there are sufficient numbers of passengers.

“In the past, many people made the decision to travel a day or two beforehand, but this will not be the case anymore,” Poria said.

“People will have to plan long in advance and it will not be easy,” he continued. “It will much more complicated. People will have to provide certificates that they don’t have the virus. They will have to fill out many forms before traveling, so it won’t be an easy decision.”

Some passengers, he believes, will fly only when they absolutely have to.

“Zoom lets us do things that we did not think we could before. Even in the academic world, if you can hold a conference via Zoom, we hold it via Zoom instead of traveling,” he said. “Friends and relatives traveling for weddings, visits or other social events will be much less of a thing than in the past.”

Qatar announced on July 21 that starting August 1, citizens and permanent residents would be allowed to travel outside the country and return whenever they wished.

Arrivals from 40 “low-risk countries” will have to undergo a COVID-19 test upon arrival at the airport and sign a commitment to self-quarantine for a week.

After seven days, they will undergo a second test. If negative, they can exit quarantine; if positive, they will be transferred to a government facility for isolation.

Travelers coming from countries that are not on the safe list must obtain a “virus-free certificate” from an accredited COVID-19 testing facility no more than 48 hours before their flight and obey the quarantine policy after arrival.

In mid-June, the World Tourism Organization declared Tunisia a safe tourist destination, and on June 27, the North African country reopened its borders to tourists.

The Israel Airports Authority announced on July 20 that foreign visitors, with very few exceptions, will be barred from entering the country until at least September 1. There are reports that the country will continue to bar entry to foreigners until November.