Vaccine passports must become essential travel documents in order to restart international tourism.
The recommendation comes from the Global Tourism Crisis Committee, which met in Madrid this week to discuss measures to ensure the safe resumption of international travel. It called for international health and travel bodies to step up the coordination of a standardised digital certification system, as well as harmonised testing protocols.
The meeting, organised by the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), took place against a backdrop of rising coronavirus cases and new strains of the virus prompting the UK to shut down all travel corridors, require all arrivals into the UK to quarantine and a total ban on arrivals from South America and Portugal.
The UNWTO secretary-general, Zurab Pololikashvili, said: “The rollout of vaccines is a step in the right direction, but the restart of tourism cannot wait. Vaccines must be part of a wider, coordinated approach that includes certificates and passes for safe cross-border travel.”
Dr Richard Dawood, a specialist in travel medicine at the Fleet Street Clinic in London, said proof of vaccination in order to travel is inevitable. “It won’t really be our choice – [vaccine passports] will de facto be a requirement by individual countries to prove immunity.”
He said existing international health regulations, for example the requirement for yellow fever certificate to enter certain countries, means the framework for a global approach already exists. “The ground work has been laid.” The issue will be around how to implement a secure system. “At the moment people in the UK are given a bit of paper once they’ve been vaccinated. It’s not exactly secure. There needs to be some fair consideration at some point to how we will keep records of vaccinations without burdening the NHS. [For health passports to work] we need a way to authenticate vaccines.”
Some travel companies have already made vaccines compulsory for travel. Saga requires its cruises passengers to have had both doses of the vaccine at least 14 days before departure. In November, Qantas chief Alan Joyce told Australia’s Nine Network that passengers would have to prove they’ve been vaccinated before boarding a flight.
But some experts point out multiple hurdles to health passports, including the existence of different vaccines with different levels of efficacy, how long immunity lasts and whether vaccinated people can still spread the virus to others. And not all travel bodies support the idea of vaccine certificates.
The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) branded them discriminatory. “We’re at the very early stage of the vaccine rollout. If you make vaccines compulsory it will mean an awful lot of people won’t be able to fly, even if they are Covid-free,” said a WTTC spokesperson. “It’s far better to have a test-and-release scheme where travellers test before travel to prove they are Covid-free.”
He added that the lack of international coordination on Covid-safety is a major block to restarting travel and boosting consumer confidence. “There’s a crazy paving of rules and regulations that most people find so hard to navigate that it is undermining the will the travel.”
Mixed messaging from the UK government is also frustrating travel companies. Derek Moore of the Association of Independent Tour Operators said the government was “shooting wildly in all directions, leaving carnage behind”.
“At present, vaccination is well underway and seems to be very successful. Our customers seem to understand better than ministers; our customers (many over 50) know that they will soon be vaccinated for self-protection.”
Moore said comments made earlier this week by health secretary Matt Hancock and foreign secretary Dominic Raab, cautioning against rushing to book holidays abroad this summer, were “frightening people and putting them off booking unnecessarily”.
Some travel companies reported strong interest in overseas travel, despite tightening border controls and warnings from ministers. But Moore pointed out that this “surge” in bookings was from a position of no bookings. “There are still a lot of people who won’t book. And comments from ministers like Preeti Patel saying ‘it’s too early to speculate about travel restrictions’ are not helping.”
Last year was the worst year on record for tourism. The WTO predicts that international tourist arrivals for 2020 fell 70-75%, or a billion fewer arrivals, resulting in an economic loss of US$2 trillion in world GDP.