THE VACCINE TOURISM OPTION

View of Uluwatu cliff with pavilion and blue sea in Bali, Indonesia
View of Uluwatu cliff with pavilion and blue sea in Bali, Indonesia

A holiday is not usually associated with getting a jab on your arm. But in a topsy-turvy world defined by a virus, needle-driven getaways or a vaccine tourism seem to be the “new normal.”

In a bid to bolster the tourism sector, which has been worst affected by the pandemic, many countries, from the European microstate San Marino to the tropical island of Bali, have jumped to offer coronavirus vaccines to the inbound travelers. Often, the scheme is clubbed with a leisure-filled, luxurious holiday package.

A Global Trend

As vaccine rollouts have been heavily imbalanced in different parts of the world, with some countries managing the outbreak of the pandemic better than others, vaccine tourism has found its niche. 

Russia is a case in point. It was the first country in the world to approve a COVID vaccine (Sputnik V). But the domestic response has been lukewarm, with only 17 million of the 144 million Russians getting the first dose till early June. The Putin administration plans to counter this demand-supply inequilibrium by designing a holiday package for foreign tourists to tour Russia between the two jabs of vaccine in three weeks.

In early May, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his plans to inoculate the visitors to the city with the single-shot J&J vaccine at popular places like Times Square, Brooklyn Bridge Park and Central Park. As he put it on May 6, “This summer, you’re going to see tourism come alive again in New York City. You’re going to see a lot of jobs come back because of it. We want to go the extra mile, make it easy for tourists.”

Within the next few weeks, 25 U.S. states offered visitors the dose, and many have become vaccine hotspots for foreign tourists, most of them from Mexico, Ecuador and Bolivia. 

The tiny island nation of Maldives has drawn up the 3V Program (Visit, Vaccinate, Vacation) for travelers seeking a sun-soaked holiday on the pristine beaches of this tropical archipelago. The project will start only after the residents and nationals of Maldives have themselves been fully vaccinated. With  around 1.7 million annual visitors accounting for nearly 70% of  the country’s GDP, Maldives aims to get the 3V Program going as early as possible to re-boot its economy.

Even San Marino, the European microstate, is hoping to revitalize its fledgling tourism industry by selling two microstays of three days each to international visitors for each dose of the vaccine. The response from European countries like the Czech Republic, Germany and Latvia has also been promising. 

The Moral Conundrum

With a number of constraints to address, vaccine tourism is interesting but still a work in progress, and with a few ethical issues to address. 

Vaxcation (a nickname the trend has earned) is largely reliant on a heavily skewed distribution of vaccines and often involves issues of prioritization. For example, the island of Bali in the Indonesian archipelago is witnessing a fresh surge of cases. At the end of June, only 6% of the population has been fully vaccinated. But the government is determined to use vaccine tourism to revive a tourism sector decimated by the pandemic. 

Two doses of Sinovac will be administered free of charge to Indonesians taking a vaxcation in Bali, a tropical isle famed for its lush green valleys and beautiful beaches. Foreign nationals will be charged a fee for the jabs they will receive at the beginning and the end of their two-week stay. The island plans to open its international borders at the end of July end, but the number of coronavirus cases have shown no signs of abating – yet.

The situation has also created opportunities for travel operators to rake in some fast cash. 

As early as December 2020, tour operators in India (where vaccination had not begun at that time) were putting together luxury packages for Indians to visit the U.K., U.S., and Russia to get the shots. Another trend began in March, when Indians with resident visas for Dubai were allowed to fly there to get the Pfizer vaccine. In April, Sputnik V announced on Twitter that their social media followers would be the first to be invited to get the vaccine in Russia when the program commences. 

Many vaccine tourists registered with a Norway-based tour operator for the option. Between the two shots, their options include luxurious stays in a Russian wellness resort or a trip to a spa hotel in Turkey.  

According to a report in April by USA Today, wealthy people from Latin America have booked flights, rented cars and even chartered airplanes to get the jab in the United States due to a slow rollout of vaccines at home. 

Because the vaccination drive in South Africa has been surprisingly sluggish, neighboring Zimbabwe has given private hospitals the green signal to inoculate vaccine tourists from South Africa. There are  concerns that this can lead to a situation where affluent foreigners are prioritized over native Zimbabweans. 

Risk Factors and Legal Issues

European microstate San Marino, Italy
European microstate San Marino, Italy

Apart from ethical concerns, there is the risk that vaccine tourists may be infected before they are fully immunized and can become asymptomatic super-spreaders during their travels.

There are critical legal aspects to consider, too. In the absence of clear healthcare laws and official arrangements in place, there is no guarantee that vaccine tourists will receive the doses as promised. More importantly, the legal implications are unclear if there is a medical emergency after a tourist gets the vaccine shot.

Perhaps a more practical solution could sending the vaccines from places with a surplus to locations with slower rollouts instead of encouraging people to travel internationally and thus increase the risk.

Vaccines, Travels and You

The latest CDC guidelines recommend delaying international travel for US residents, if not fully vaxxed. It also mentions that though fully vaccinated people have a lower risk of getting and spreading the COVID-19 virus, international travel involves additional risks.

  • For international travel, CDC strongly recommends a check of the pandemic situation of the destination country and adherence to COVID protocols at all times during travel.
  • Domestic travel for US residents is also recommended only for fully vaccinated people (which is 2 weeks after the second shot of the two-dose series of Pfizer or Moderna vaccines; or two weeks after the single-dose Janssen vaccine from Johnson & Johnson)
  • Several US states, including California, Nevada and New York, have dropped their residency requirements, and non-residents can get vaccine appointments.