Will the COVID vaccine spur international travel?

After a year of lockdowns and travel restrictions across the globe, many are hopeful that the COVID vaccine will encourage governments to reopen their borders. Will the newly inoculated help kickstart international travel once more?

On November 9 last year, Pfizer and BioNTech announced a 90 per cent efficacy rate for their COVID-19 vaccine. For a world that had been forced indoors for most of 2020, the news offered a glimmer of hope that one might soon be able to travel freely again. The travel industry, which has been among the worst affected by the pandemic, saw a sudden boost with airline and cruise company share prices rising and a surge in searches and bookings for 2021.

A survey of 3,500 consumers, released by Allianz at the end of November, found that 58 per cent of respondents who replied before news of the COVID vaccine became public said that a proven vaccine would make them feel safe to travel again. They also said a vaccine would influence their travel plans more than announcements from health officials (48 per cent) or advanced sanitization efforts at hotels, airports and other spaces (47 per cent).  

As vaccines continue to be rolled out across the globe, will those who have received their jabs lead the way to opening up international travel once more?

“For sure a vaccine will spur tourism,” says Mahesh Shirodkar, Managing Director of destination and event management company Tamarind Global.

However, he cautions against considering the COVID vaccine a silver bullet for the travel industry.  

COVID spikes and dynamic border rules

While the end of 2020 saw domestic lockdown rules be relaxed in some countries, most borders remain closed to international tourists as of February 2021. The rise and fall of COVID-19 cases continues to be unpredictable across the world. Countries such as the UK and India, for example, saw sudden spikes in early 2021.

“There’s so much dynamism and volatility in terms of movements across countries with borders opening and closing,” Shirodkar says.

He points out that while certain countries may have begun allowing international tourists again, most have instituted strict protocols for visitors such as a mandatory period of quarantine and a negative COVID test result on arrival, all of which are not conducive to tourism. For example, “The UAE had a huge surge of visitors in the last quarter of 2020 but has clamped down again, not in terms of entry but in terms of what can be permitted within the country. Everyone requires a PCR test, no public gatherings or live entertainment are allowed and social distancing norms are much more stringent,” he explains.

Is a COVID passport key to easing international travel?

Starting March, 20 airlines, including Emirates, Etihad and Air New Zealand, will begin trialling the IATA Travel Pass, a mobile app that will allow passengers to store digital versions of their COVID test results, vaccination certificates and other travel documentation and share them with authorities. “The main priority is to get people travelling again safely. In the immediate term that means establishing confidence in governments that systematic pre-departure COVID-19 testing can work as a replacement for quarantine requirements. And that will eventually develop into a vaccine programme,” reads a statement on the website of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the aviation trade body that has developed the app.

While the IATA Travel Pass and other such digital initiatives could facilitate contactless travel and speed up airport check-ins and immigration processes, it’s important to note that the rate of distribution of COVID vaccines varies around the globe.

Additionally, citizens across countries are being granted access to different versions of the vaccine, such as Oxford/AstraZeneca, Sputnik V, Sinovac and Covaxin, none of which have proven to be a 100 per cent effective against the coronavirus. “It’s (a COVID vaccine) an immunity increase and it’s much better than not having one, but I don’t know whether that would mean unlimited travel,” says Shirodkar.

As per data from January 27, the Economic Intelligence Unit projects that only the United States, the UK and some parts of Europe will be fully vaccinated by late 2021. Canada, Russia, South America and Australia will have to wait till mid-2022; India, Afghanistan, China and parts of Africa are likely to be fully vaccinated only by late 2022; and Pakistan and a majority of Africa might have to wait until early 2023 for complete vaccination.

International travel to and from India

Government officials in India have said the Union home, external affairs, health, aviation and tourism ministries are in talks to discuss the way forward for opening the country’s borders to international travellers. However, India’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution programme is still in its nascent stage. Essential workers were the primary beneficiaries of the first phase of the country’s vaccine rollout. The second phase, scheduled to begin in early March, will focus on citizens above 60 years old and those with co-morbidities who are above 45 years of age.

“Currently there’s no clarity as far as tourism is concerned for travellers coming into India because vaccinations have yet not been completed in India itself, so countries are not going to start sending people to India in a hurry,” Shirodkar says. “[International travel] is not going to happen so quickly in my opinion. We’re just hopeful that by Q3-Q4, i.e., October onwards there will be some kind of limping back to normalcy as far as international tourism is concerned,” he adds.

Shirodkar also notes that while the Central government may relax restrictions on international travellers to India, state governments will still be given autonomy to decide under what circumstances tourists from abroad will be allowed into their borders.

While the Indian travel and hospitality industry emphasises that international tourism is necessary to revive the sector, a joint report by the tourism ministry and the Federation of Associations of Indian Tourism and Hospitality (FAITH) predicts that tourism activity is likely to return to pre-COVID levels only in two or three years. “In 2020, international tourism activity worldwide declined by over 70 per cent reaching levels prevalent 30 years ago. Although countries have begun to partially lift travel restrictions, international travel demand is forecast to remain subdued. Domestic tourism will be the driver of travel and tourism in the interim,” the report says.