2021 is supposed to be the year that a Covid-19 vaccine saves travel.
But if the first week was any indication, it could be a long and unpredictable road.
With slow and uneven rollouts of the first vaccines, more contagious forms of the virus taking hold, fresh lockdowns and more countries looking at pretravel-testing requirements and digital health passes, the rules governing travel — at least in the near term — promise to be as confusing as ever, if not more so.
Last week, Canada began requiring all inbound travellers to show proof of a negative Covid-19 test in addition to its two-week quarantine requirement. The Hawaiian island of Kauai went in the other direction, replacing its 10-day mandatory quarantine with a negative-test requirement. U.S. airlines called on the Trump administration to implement pretravel testing rules for all international passengers to replace bans on travellers from high-risk countries. And Dr. Anthony Fauci, who heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told Newsweek that it is "quite possible" that Covid-19 vaccinations could become mandatory for travel to other countries.
As in 2020, the rules of travel promise to be ever-evolving and widely varying from country to country, state to state and even city to city, making it difficult for travel companies — particularly cruise lines and tour operators that run trips across multiple borders — to map out their return.
Ultimately, the travel sector and the rest of the world are counting on the new vaccines that began rolling out over the last month to be the key to a widespread reopening of global travel, either through mandates, the achievement of herd immunity or both.
But the slower-than-expected early vaccine distribution efforts in the U.S. have proven that the operation "in and of itself is Herculean, to put it bluntly," said Dr. Robert Quigley, senior vice president and global medical director of health and security services firm, International SOS.
And implementation of digital health records, or vaccine passports, to ease cross-border travel also face a host of challenges.
"The efficacy of the vaccine and the constant evolution of this virus are both going to bring into question the validity of a [health] passport," Quigley said. "Suppose I get vaccinated and get a vaccine passport. But a passport, or a certificate, how valid is that going to be? Is it valid for a year? Is there going to be an expiration date put on that? Do you get the vaccine once in your life? Do you get an immune test? Because we don't know how long this immunisation will work towards giving protection. Suppose next year there's a new version of Covid-19. So, there's all of these issues that complicate this subject."
Digital health records also raise questions about privacy and fraud.
"How do you maintain that your health information doesn't get into the hands of the authorities?" he added. "How do we ensure information is indeed yours, and it's not fraudulent?"
Also complicating the issue are the competing interests travel companies and tourism-dependent governments face as they weigh entry requirements with economic pressures to bring travellers back. Costa Rica, for instance, citing the need to restart its economy, in Q4 2020 eliminated its initial pretravel-testing requirement, but with the caveat that it could again reverse course if cases there rise once more.
Rules across Europe have been as unpredictable as the virus itself. Eduardo Santander, executive director of the European Travel Commission, said he is unaware of any current EU discussions about developing uniform travel approaches for testing and vaccines but that his group "favours a digital and user-friendly solution that will facilitate the secure flow of necessary testing and vaccine information with transportation providers and border authorities allowing more seamless travel."
Indeed, Virginia Messina, managing director of the World Travel & Tourism Council, said consistency in travel policies "is key to bringing back or restoring travel confidence. It's not only a health crisis, it's a confidence crisis.
"We've been calling for consistency — if not globally, at least regionally," she said.
"The challenge we're up against is these ever-changing rules. Every day there are different countries closing borders, new quarantines, new measures. It's impossible to keep track, and it's really hard for a traveller to understand what the measures are wherever they are going."
While many cruise lines and tour operators hope to resume international operations Q2 this year, they say more clarity is needed to finalise their own rules for guests.
"Proof of vaccine is something we are thinking about," said Dan Mahar, CEO of Tauck.
Pamela Hoffee, managing director of the Globus family of brands' Avalon Waterways, said they anticipate "a mix of proof of vaccination or routine testing to be part of our final programme".
"As we are able to see what happens with the vaccine rollout, plus requirements of counties, we can finalise our plans accordingly."
Messina, however, cautioned against companies themselves mandating vaccines.
"One of the biggest challenges we have seen is companies saying you must have a vaccine to travel, like Qantas did in early December," she said. "That is not sustainable. Firstly, the vaccines are not mandatory; it's down to the people to decide. And children under 18 are not approved, so there are the issues around children if a family is traveling."
Gloria Guevara, chief executive of global travel body World Travel and Tourism Council, likened such moves to workplace discrimination, who said "We should never require the vaccination to get a job or to travel," in a Straits Times article.
Echoing her view at the recent Reuters Next conference was AirAsia Group chief executive Tony Fernandes, who believes global testing protocols are the key to unlocking travel.
As well, scientists from World Health Organisation (WHO) have cautioned that despite mass vaccinations, the reality is that herd immunity would still not be close.
"We know we need to get to herd immunity and we need that in a majority of countries, so we are not going to see that in 2021," said Professor Dale Fisher, chairman of the WHO's Outbreak Alert and Response Network.
Johanna Jainchill, Christina Jelski, Robert Silk and Natalie Joy Lee contributed to this report.
Source: Travel Weekly