Should you take the vaccine tourism packages seriously?

There is no evidence that many of the vaccine tourism packages being sold to Indians are authentic. While Russia hasn’t officially announced any vaccine tourism policy, the Maldives and Seychelles’ official vaccine tourism offers are not available to Indians.

Consider this. The Maldives, the success story of tourism in the post lockdown era, has revised its target upwards for tourist arrivals in 2021. The 3V tourism policy – Visit-Vaccinate-Vacation – will help revive the tourism industry, according to Abdulla Mausoom, Minister of Tourism, a veteran industry hand who was appointed to the post in August. 

Vaccine tourism maldives
The Maldives is following the 3V tourism policy – Visit-Vaccinate-Vacation – to revive the tourism industry. Indians are not welcome at the moment though.

“Tourists can come to the Maldives, get vaccinated and safely vacation,” he explains. Indeed, the Maldives was among India’s top outbound destinations — while for the Maldives, India top inbound source country for travellers for the better part of the last seven to eight months. However, there is no evidence that Indians are welcome at the moment, given that there are pretty much no flights out of India to anywhere in the world.

In our dystopian times, when much of the world, including the travel and tourism sectors, are topsy-turvy and struggling to survive, it is perhaps not inconceivable that people travel for Covid-19 vaccine shots, especially when they are not available in their own countries. That, in sum, is what ‘vaccine tourism’ — ill-defined, unclear for now, perhaps even ephemeral.

Miami beach vaccination
Affluent tourists from Latin American countries are flocking to Miami Beach for the single jab Johnson & Johnson vaccine and a spot of holiday.

Miami Beach in the popular US vacation state of Florida has been seeing visitors from various Latin American countries land up to get vaccine shots, especially the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Belatedly, some US states have introduced residency permits for those who seek vaccines, but there are still dozens of states where no residency proof is required to get the much-wanted shot.

Even as some countries are opening up, it is becoming clear that some form of ‘Covid or health passport or visa’ will be a must-have travel document for international travel. The International Air Transport Association introduced the IATA travel pass — a mobile app that can be used by air passengers to obtain and store their COVID-19 test results from accredited laboratories. Among the 20-odd airlines testing it are Singapore Airlines, Emirates, Qatar Airways, Malaysia Airlines, Japan Airlines and Etihad. Vaccines play a crucial role in its implementation. In the short term, at least, many travel insiders think vaccine tourism might be a way to cut losses for the bleeding sectors.

Of course, medical tourism is already a lucrative segment of travel, and many countries offer health services or medical procedures eagerly as part of their allure for visitors. New York mayor Bill de Blasio, holding out the offer of free vaccines for tourists, said on May 6, “Come here, it’s safe, it’s a great place to be and we’re going to take care of you”.

To open or not to open

A key cause of vaccine tourism is the uneven availability of vaccines. While many parts of the US are having to offer freebies to people — from cash incentives to free meals — to get them to take the shots, most countries are desperately short of vaccines. Also, a vaccine that is approved in one nation may not be cleared in another. India, for example, does not offer the vaccines available in the US — the ones by Pfizer or Moderna.

India, which is witnessing an acute shortage of vaccines, is seeing countries in the neighbourhood that are popular holiday destinations for them, opening up. Maldives and Seychelles, which is touted as ‘the most vaccinated nation in the world’, with over 60 per cent of its population having got the second dose as of May 19, offered vaccines as part of the travel package. Of course, with the rise of the ‘second wave’ in India, many countries have restricted entry for Indians.

Perhaps in keeping with the unpredictability of the times, Mausoom would not reveal the exact timeline for the visitor vaccination rollout, especially as visitors from India are no longer permitted. Seychelles has its challenges as on May 10, Seychelles’ health ministry reported a steep rise in the number of cases. Almost 37 per cent of the new infections were in people who had received both doses. Seychelles is allowing only fully vaccinated visitors from India who have completed two weeks after their second dose.

Some have tended to jump the gun. When the UK became the first nation to approve its first vaccine late in 2020, Indian travel agents began offering packages that included besides flights, accommodations and meals — visits to facilities to get a shot. Of course, UK has had strict local residency requirements for vaccines that continue to date, but that did not stop opportunistic travel agents and gullible customers from initially cashing in on it.

Russia has not officially announced a vaccine tourism policy, though several Indian tour operators are offering packages to the country. 

WHO has not recognised some vaccines that were approved under ‘emergency authorisation use’, such as the Russian made Sputnik V. While UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that the process of recognition by the World Health Organisation (WHO) of Russian coronavirus vaccine Sputnik V was underway, EU’s European Medicines Agency has not recognised it either. Yet, there have been reports of some Indian travel agents offering vaccine tours to Russia.

A Dubai-based travel agency advertised a 24-day package tour from Delhi to Moscow for two shots of the Sputnik V vaccines. A 20-day sightseeing package, costing Rs 1.29 lakh, is also included for travellers to spend the interval between the jabs and will cover everything, including the cost of getting the vaccines.

Russia hasn’t officially launched any vaccine tourism policy, unlike the Maldives. Ajay Awtaney, Founder and Editor, LiveFromALounge cautions against taking on the package, advising people to do their due diligence. Travel agency Kuoni Tumlare says Russia does not offer vaccination to foreigners. 

Indians are not alone in their desperation to get vaccinated. Thailand-based Unithai Trip is offering a vaccine tour to the US where tourists can receive either a Johnson & Johnson jab or two doses of the Pfizer vaccine, reports Forbes. Thai tourism authorities have cautioned customers to be careful about vaccination packages. Similarly, after a Turkish travel company began offering vaccination trips to Serbia, its authorities too had to clarify that the vaccines were not for tourists. 

Indian authorities have not communicated anything on the matter, even as flights to and from the country are heavily curtailed, operating under ‘air bubble’ agreements that often change with little notice.

However, given the continuing shortage of vaccines, combined with a mix of apprehension and lack of clarity from authorities, there is likely to be more instances of tour agents launching dubious vaccine tourism packages. It would be best to check authorised government policy in places where the travel agent promises the shot. And read the small print. Very very carefully. 

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