Vaccine tourism: Making hay while corona rages?
Travel to other parts of the world for medical treatments may be a common practice, but a new concept in the form of ‘vaccine tourism’ is fast emerging post COVID-19 pandemic. Vaccine tourism means visiting another country or state to get a vaccine not available to you at home. Right now, vaccine tourism is all about the COVID-19 vaccine, which has had a slow rollout in many states and isn’t yet easily available worldwide. In the US and other countries that have the vaccine, some populations are getting priority, such as the elderly and health care workers. But some people who don’t fall into these groups have reportedly been jumping the line and traveling elsewhere for their shots.
In December, an Indian travel agency (which claims to have coined the vaccine tourism phrase) claimed they were “taking registrations of Indians with a valid 10-year US visa” for their COVID-19 vaccine package— a four-day trip from Mumbai to New York City, with a corona virus shot included. The cost? Approximately $2,000, reported NBC News. Other travel agencies in India confirmed that they were creating similar tour packages to the US, UK, and Russia to get their COVID-19 shot.
Is vaccine tourism legal?
Not exactly. So far, there are no official arrangements in place with foreign authorities to ensure these ‘vaccine tourists’ get the experience they are promised, shot in the arm and all. Of equal concern are the ethics of people with money or connections visiting another state or country to get a COVID vaccine, while others wait for their turn per guidelines set up by their country or state. Some countries are now actively preventing vaccine tourism. In the UK, for example, you can only get the vaccine when you’re offered it through your doctor, and you need to confirm your personal details, including address, at your appointment for the shot. And it’s a free vaccination for everyone through the country's National Health Service (NHS), so you can’t pay to get it privately (and jump the line, effectively).
Things are a little more complicated in the US, of course, where vaccine availability is determined by individual states, and each state has its own rules and procedures. The New York Times reports that some local public health departments have portals people can use to make vaccination appointments, while others are hosting mass vaccination events working on a first-come, first-served basis. Generally, doctor's offices and pharmacists have asked people not to call them to make vaccine appointments at this stage, but to wait to be contacted.
Vaccine tourism across the US
In other parts of the US, some form of ‘vaccine tourism’ is happening. Mark and Connie Wallace, who live in Shelby County, Alabama, told CNN affiliate WBMA they drove almost two hours to Carroll County, Georgia, to get vaccinated at a Publix pharmacy. “They knew that we were coming from out of state and they said that that was fine,” says Connie, who is 68 and has underlying health issues related to her heart. “So we didn't feel like we were pushing anybody else out, which we didn’t want to do.” People from neighboring states can also travel to North Carolina to get the corona virus vaccine, according to the state’s Department of Health and Human Services. The lack of strict residency requirements means somebody from South Carolina or other neighboring states who are hospital workers or in the 75 year-plus age group can get a dose of the vaccination allocated for a North Carolina resident. “A provider cannot refuse to vaccinate someone that presents for vaccination if they fall into the open prioritization phase and do not have a vaccine contradiction, so a resident of another state could be vaccinated here if they fall into the appropriate open prioritization phase,” the department said in a statement to the Associated Press.
Many states let you check your eligibility for the vaccine online, and if you're not yet eligible, you can register to be notified when it's your turn for the shot. In some states, you don't have to be an official resident to be eligible. For instance, the official California state government website states that “vaccine distribution is based on eligibility irrespective of residency or immigration status.” The state of New York has stricter eligibility rules. If you're eligible for the vaccine on the basis of employment (e.g. you’re a health care worker, police officer, childcare provider, grocery store worker), you must provide proof of employment in the State of New York. If you're eligible on the basis of age (i.e. are 65 or over), you must produce proof of age and proof of residence in New York.
Vaccine tourism in Maldives
Maldives is also supposed to be offering visitors vaccinations on arrival as part of three-pronged initiative aimed at reviving the country’s hard hit tourism sector. Tourism Minister Abdulla Mausoom says the “3V” strategy, which encourages tourists to ‘visit, vaccinate, and vacation’, will provide a more convenient way to visit the country. At present, visitors to Maldives must provide a negative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test and proof of hotel booking to gain entry. Mausoom said the country’s Health Protection Agency was set to make an announcement on restriction-free entry to vaccinated arrivals “very soon”.
Maldives, an archipelago state in South Asia renowned for its tropical beaches and pristine waters, is heavily dependent on its tourism industry. Around 67% of its gross domestic product (GDP) is derived directly and indirectly from the sector. The tourism minister would not be pushed on a timeline for the visitor vaccination rollout. He noted that the government’s priority was to ensure the entire resident population receives their first and second shots first. However, once that process was complete, the country would be ready to vaccinate arrivals, he said. “I don’t think supply is a problem in Maldives because our population is relatively small,” he added. To date, around 53% of the island nation's approximately 530,000 residents have received their first dose, according to Reuters’ vaccination tracker. “Some 90% of front-line tourism staff have received their first dose,” said Mausoom. He said the country had received vaccine donations from India, China, and the World Health Organization’s Covax scheme, which aimed to ensure that vaccines were fairly and equitably distributed. Maldives had also ordered additional supplies from Singapore, he said. Mausoom said the tourism drive was a necessary strategy to help the country reach its target of 1.5 million tourist arrivals and 10 million bed nights this year. “When we reach this year’s target, still we will have a shortfall of what the country needs,” he said. “But still, that is much better than we anticipated in late 2020.” Already this year, Maldives has received 350,000 arrivals, as holidaymakers — primarily from nearby India — take advantage of the country’s limited entry requirements. Meantime, guests are booking longer stays, with many using the islands as a destination for so-called “workations” — or a working vacation. Mausoom said he was hopeful that would continue, with tourists staying to receive both their first and second doses.