As the COVID vaccine rollout progresses, one thing is becoming painfully clear: The effort has been starkly uneven around the world. Some countries, like the U.S. and nations in Europe, have made huge strides in vaccinating their populations, while other corners of the globe are still battling devastating outbreaks.
Amid the imbalanced access to COVID vaccine doses, some tourist-reliant destinations that have made headway with inoculating the local population are now earmarking extra doses for arriving travelers. Places like the Maldives, certain islands in the Caribbean, New York City, and Alaska have announced such measures over the past couple of months.
The logic behind these initiatives is not hard to follow: The tourism industry has been gutted by the pandemic, and locales want a safe way to restart what is a major economic engine. But the policies might give some travelers pause, as they can appear to use up doses still needed by locals or favor the more privileged who can afford to book a long-haul trip for the shot. They also can seem to facilitate the chance for wealthy travelers to skip ahead of more at-risk people around the world. So should travelers take these doses if a destination is offering them?
“I think the idea that, for example, single-dose vaccines like Johnson & Johnson, ought to be available to people when they arrive in a country, for whatever reason they’re traveling, is a very good idea,” says Chris Beyrer, a professor of public health and human rights at Johns Hopkins. “Now those people won’t be fully protected for two weeks, but it’s a simple strategy and you don’t have to wait the additional three or four weeks for a second dose.”
New York City plans to offer the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine to tourists in places like Times Square and the High Line. The state has also created pop-up clinics for both residents and visitors inside subway stations and airports. But Alaska, which relies heavily on the summer cruise season, is planning to offer travelers doses of Pfizer or Moderna shots (which require two doses) at its four largest airports starting June 1.
Some say the programs are really only ideal if the visitors are from an area where vaccine access is lacking. “It depends on where people are coming from,” says Leana Wen, emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University and former health commissioner of Baltimore. “There are of course many individuals from countries that don’t have nearly enough vaccine, and if they arriving at a location that does have vaccination, absolutely they should take advantage of it. As long as the individuals who are living in these locations are first given access, I don’t see a problem with the overall concept.”
In fact, experts agree that American travelers really shouldn’t be participating in vaccine on arrival programs, since the U.S. has readily available doses its own population. “The other equity issue is you’re traveling somewhere to get a vaccine where you could be taking it away from locals who need it more,” says Arthur Caplan, head of the division of medical ethics at NYU. “So you have to weigh that, too. You don’t want to take supply.”
Although the majority of destinations that have offered up doses to visitors have said their local populations have adequate vaccine access, Caplan urges travelers to use scrutiny when evaluating these claims. “Vaccine politics are complex because some of these countries are run by business interests that very much depend on tourism,” he says. “I don’t always trust what they say.”
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While these are concerning points, some experts say the programs—if properly executed—could help to protect residents. “That’s the other side of this, that there are so many places in the world that rely on tourism and [the] travel industry, and where the people who live there and work there who are not tourists have a right to be protected,” Beyrer says. “So do you keep tourism shut down? Or do you open it and try to do it in ways that are safe?”
There are also other potential benefits for local populations. “It’s been a really challenging year and a half, and many of these places that have relied on tourism have been decimated,” Wen says. “If this is what it takes in order to get their economy back and get the standard of living back for their residents, who are we to give judgements?”
Another major concern for both epidemiologists and travelers? People who are unvaccinated boarding flights or trains to get inoculated. The CDC cleared only fully vaccinated people for widespread travel this summer. “I think you should be vaccinated before you get there,” Caplan says. “Getting vaccinated when you arrive at your tourist destination still means that you have at least a couple of weeks before you build up immunity, and you may need a second shot in some cases. I’d want to be fully vaccinated before I got to the airport, got on that plane, or got to my destination. I would not be waiting. I think that’s very unwise.”
Although it’s not ideal, Wen says that it could be possible to travel to get a vaccine. “Travel can be very safe, as long as people take the necessary precautions,” such as wearing a mask and avoiding removing it, she says. “There are ways to keep safe while traveling but they must be extremely vigilant if they are not yet vaccinated.”
Before making a decision, Wen advises each traveler to weigh the facts against their own situations. “I think there is an ethical argument one could be making that vaccine tourism leaves behind those who are financially not able to do so, and it is a real concern,” she says. “However there is also the argument of sustaining the tourism industry in countries that have been really hard hit as well. I would say that people need to make their own individual ethics judgments about whether they feel comfortable taking part in this.”