Countries trying to strike a balance between protecting public health and accelerating economic recovery in the Covid-19 age are seeking to reopen mothballed tourist industries against the backdrop of the threat posed by the Delta variant.
The spread of the highly contagious strain has often coincided with the arrival of visitors, many attracted by, in some countries, relaxed entry requirements and the end of local lockdown rules.
Dr Bharat Pankhania, a senior clinical lecturer at the University of Exeter in the UK and senior consultant in communicable disease control, said many nations were exhibiting fatigue in their efforts to stem the spread of the virus while trying to navigate a route back to normality.
“Having the Delta variant does not help because the Delta variant is about three to four times more infectious, in other words, easy to get infected by,” Dr Pankhania said.
“With the Alpha or Beta or Delta variants, it is always the case that if you drop your guard, you will get a surge in cases,” Dr Pankhania said.
The National looks at six popular travel destinations that have recorded some of the biggest surges in coronavirus case numbers this summer.
Cases double in Mexico as tourism soars
Case numbers in Mexico increased significantly in June and July as the country faced its third wave of infections, driven at least in part by the Delta variant.
With people able to enter freely by air, the country experienced a busy summer season, with Cancún on the Caribbean Sea attracting more than two million visitors in June, more than 10 times the figure for June 2020 and almost up to pre-pandemic levels. Los Cabos on the Gulf of California actually had more tourists in June this year than in June 2019, before the coronavirus emerged.
It is perhaps no surprise, then, that case numbers more than doubled, from 45,911 in the week beginning July 5 to 114,783 in the week beginning August 2. Infections are particularly high among younger people, with the average age of patients in this third wave just 38.
Resorts on the Caribbean and Pacific coasts have reportedly recorded heavy increases in infection numbers and one hotel in Cancún is said to have set aside two floors for visitors with Covid symptoms.
Georgia reports infection increase as restrictions ease
Georgia, whose Black Sea coast is popular with tourists, experienced a severe surge in case numbers from late June onwards, with deaths also increasing fast just as the tourist industry got back into gear.
Foreign visitors since July 5 have been able to arrive by air and a curfew and a requirement to wear masks in the street ended in early July.
In the week beginning June 21, there were 4,641 Covid-19 cases, but by the week beginning August 2 this had risen to 25,725 – more than five times as many.
Last year the number of foreign visitors to Georgia fell by more than 90 per cent on 2019’s figure of 9.3 million, so even a slower-than-usual tourist season in 2021 is likely to be an improvement.
Early media reports indicate that the tourist sector has been significantly busier this year as vaccinated tourists have begun arriving, but this has been accompanied by the increase in case numbers.
France takes action to stem spread of virus
France, the most popular country in the world for tourism, attracts close to 90 million holidaymakers in a typical year, and in early June the borders were reopened.
Vaccinated travellers from many countries have been able to enter without any additional testing or quarantine requirements and, in a well-publicised move, the Eiffel tower reopened to visitors in mid-July.
However, by then a surge in cases driven by the Delta variant had forced the country to impose new coronavirus-related restrictions, such as mandatory Covid-19 entry passes for restaurants and tourist destinations.
France’s jump in case numbers has been dramatic, with the weekly total increasing more than 10-fold from the seven days beginning June 28 (13,256 cases) to the week beginning August 2 (148,681 cases).
Despite anti-lockdown protests, with case rates still high, the country is extending requirements for people to show a Covid-19 health pass – obtained after a full vaccination course, a negative test or recovery from the disease – to cafes, restaurants and intercity trains.
Low vaccination rates take a toll in Thailand
After effectively managing the coronavirus pandemic early on through border controls and social distancing, Thailand has been hit hard in recent months.
The Delta variant has swept through a population where the rate of full vaccination is just 6.5 per cent.
Case numbers, building since April, reached 141,191 in the week beginning August 2, compared with 53,304 in the week beginning July 5.
This is despite the fact that tourists are largely restricted to particular locations, such as Phuket Island. Here, vaccination rates are higher, although visitor numbers remain a fraction of the norm.
With death rates above 1,000 per week by early August, and case numbers growing significantly each week, Thailand recently joined the list of countries the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention advises tourists not to travel to.
Lockdown measures have been extended to control the growing outbreak, with restrictions on travel and shop openings expanded along with curfews.
Tourism and infections on the rise in Greece
After relaxing its quarantine rules and officially opening its borders to tourists in May, Greece has been successful in attracting visitors this year, with the government reporting 2.3 million arrivals by mid-July.
But this influx of tourists has been accompanied by heavy increases in the number of coronavirus cases, with infection rates rising from late June onwards and approaching those recorded in earlier surges.
In the week beginning June 21, the country had 2,508 cases, but by the seven days starting August 2, the figure had risen to 17,400, with numbers having stayed high for about a month.
The Delta variant is spreading fast, especially among younger people, sparking concern among the authorities about crowded bars and other holiday hot spots.
Extra police have reportedly been deployed to try to ensure that Covid rules are adhered to and restrictions, such as a ban on playing music, are in place at some locations.
Israel dealt a blow by Delta
Israel, despite having one of the world's most successful coronavirus vaccination campaigns – almost 80 per cent of adults are fully vaccinated – recently faced dramatic increases in case numbers.
The country, normally popular with tourists, has recorded an increase in case numbers because of the Delta variant even when its travel sector has largely been in hibernation, with foreign citizens requiring a government entry permit.
Throughout July cases jumped by between 59 per cent and 70 per cent each week, so that by the beginning of August, the weekly case total, 24,768, was more than 7.5 times the figure for the week beginning July 5, when it was 3,259.
A requirement for people entering a hotel, restaurant or gym to show proof of vaccination or a negative test has been reintroduced and further lockdown restrictions could be brought back to contain the new infection wave.