The U.S. achieved two major milestones at the beginning of April 2021 – more than 100 million Americans received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and the other was the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) relaxing its guidance for fully vaccinated Americans to travel without the need for testing or self-quarantine within the domestic borders.
On April 2, 2021, the CDC recommended that fully vaccinated people – those who have completed two weeks after receiving their last recommended dose of the COVID-19 vaccine – and can travel within the United States and do not need COVID-19 testing or post-travel self-quarantine. The exceptions to the guidance for fully vaccinated travelers were:
- COVID-19 test requirement by an international destination
- No self-quarantine upon returning to the U.S. from an international destination, unless required by a state or local jurisdiction
- A negative COVID-19 test before boarding a flight to the U.S., and a follow-up 3 to 5 days after arrival
TRUST VS. EXPLOITATION?
In absolute terms, this guidance applies to 58.2 million and counting fully vaccinated Americans, undeniably the largest catchment of travelers worldwide. The CDC guidance is certainly welcome news for the travel industry which suffered its worst decline since the 9/11 terror attacks a decade ago.
Still, health officials globally have warned that a vaccination is not a free pass to travel, and travelers should tread cautiously during these uncertain times. Largely, the possibility of a fully vaccinated person transmitting coronavirus cannot be ruled out completely. Yet, the CDC has placed its confidence in America’s vaccination drive and relaxed its travel guidance, albeit with some caveats. No doubt this will give an impetus to the tourism industry in the summer.
Photo Source: Rolling Stone
While the industry is all for relaxed regulations and screening processes to revive travel, there is still a gaping hole in verifying the authenticity of hand-written vaccine certificates currently issued by U.S. physicians. With governments and organizations beginning to insist on a COVID-negative test report or a vaccination certificate to allow people to resume their pre-pandemic lives, the presentation of fake reports (including digital versions) at security and immigration is now commonplace and is a major health risk.
Verifying millions of hand-written vaccination record cards manually with no central repository system to authenticate it against is non-viable. Recent studies also reveal that the immunity provided by current vaccines may last up to 9 months. How does the travel industry plan maintain a record, let alone track travelers’ vaccine status?
Even digital health records have their limitations around data privacy and fraud and add to the ongoing woes. Moreover, the U.S. federal government has directed its states to decide on the implementation of respective vaccine passports to authenticate people. Accordingly, the use of vaccine passports may also diminish in destinations that do away with the need to pre-test fully vaccinated travelers.
AN IMPENDING DOOM?
The U.S.’ laissez-faire handling of the pandemic in 2020 is a well-documented affair. States such as Florida, Texas, North Dakota often headlined stories about anti-maskers, lack of social distancing protocols, people gathering, and related COVID-19 spikes soon after. As fully vaccinated people take to travel in the coming weeks and months, they may find themselves around non-vaccinated locals and tourists, including anti-vaxxers, and inevitably be in a COVID-19 hotspot, as recently witnessed in Miami during the spring break. It ultimately resulted in a curfew to curb the spread of COVID-19 in several counties. Situations like these will impact travel plans at various destinations.
Tangling the issue further is competing interests of local governments and their tourism departments to lure travelers. For instance, Costa Rica eliminated its pre-arrival-testing requirement back in October 2020 in a bid to restart its economy on the back of tourism. During the same time and even till today, several destinations maintained stringent protocols for arriving travelers. As more destinations liberalize arrival protocols in favor of reduced or no testing and self-quarantine, they stand to benefit tourism revenues at the expense of those following the hard-line. Regardless, between vaccine record frauds and no testing there remains a threat of exposing local communities and the travel industry workers to the infection.
INTERNATIONAL TOURISM IN A LIMBO?
At the heart of it, the latest CDC’s guidelines are a fillip to the U.S. domestic travel market. Retailers and travelers would naturally favor destinations that shift their protocols in line with the guidance faster than others. On the contrary, countries and, regions that continue to impose pre-testing and self-quarantine will be most affected by the latest CDC update, as travel demand and receipts shift and create an imbalance compared to the pre-pandemic era.
The travel industry today should not only focus on recovery but also uniform growth. The latest CDC update has a major influence on the rest of the world by setting a precedent for other tourism economies to relax norms for fully vaccinated travelers. However, whether such initiatives bring back tourism to pre-2020 levels or results in frequent spikes, only time will tell.