Editor’s note: This is a column for AFAR by James Thornton, CEO of Intrepid Travel, which was featured recently in our Tour Operators That Give Back series.
The discovery of the COVID-19 Omicron variant sent the markets into a tailspin and reverberated the world over with a barrage of border closures and travel restrictions. The abrupt halting of travel is more than an inconvenience; it presents myriad risks to the economic and social benefits that travel often provides. The repeated emergence of new variants lays bare the inadequacies of global vaccine access, and the hot spots tell the tale of the unacceptable lack of support for vaccination in lower income countries. Vaccination and global vaccine equity are imperative to slowing the acceleration of the pandemic and helping us all return to a sense of normalcy, including travel. Omicron is not the first variant to surface, nor will it be the last, and therefore we must consider how we will establish ways to create a more safe, resilient, responsible, and equitable reality for travel.
The single most important step any of us can take to fight COVID-19 is to get vaccinated. This is doubly true for travelers. The CDC and the WHO agree in their recommendations for full vaccination before international travel. Vaccine mandates protect travelers, tourism and travel workers, as well as the people and communities that are their destinations. For those of us in the travel industry, to promote and enable unvaccinated travelers (without medical exemptions) from traveling around the world and visiting vulnerable communities is simply irresponsible. We are all part of a global community and as such should act to minimize transmission rates in every way we can.
Armed with the knowledge that vaccines can save lives and help us maintain the connections we knew prepandemic, we must demand global vaccine equity. Travel cannot return unless it returns for everyone, which means universal access to vaccines. The entire travel industry must step up to acknowledge and act on the current inequalities that persist around global access to COVID-19 vaccines. The news about the Omicron variant is a reminder of how we’re failing to vaccinate the whole world. The subsequent restrictions and lockdowns have drastic economic and social consequences to many countries and communities.
We need to continue listening to the science and concede that there will continue to be new variants until we improve global access to vaccines. Increasing global vaccination rates will help control new variants and open the world to unfettered travel again. We all have the power to help with solutions. The WHO and many other groups advocating for vaccine equity have information about donation, individually or through the private sector. Getting involved by spreading awareness of the problem is a great first step, but we all need to put actions to our words. Intrepid Travel launched a global vaccine equity campaign that includes increasing on-the-ground resources in support of vaccine access and education, and has raised over AUD $142,000 for UNICEF’s Give The World A Shot appeal to improve global equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines.
Our collective focus should be on traveling safely and mindfully instead of not traveling at all. With great travel comes great responsibility. Responsible travelers connect to and invest in the places they go, the people they meet along the way, and the communities they visit. Responsible travel can provide benefits to local economies, human rights initiatives, wildlife conservation projects, and the environment. Travel has the ability to be a force of good, connecting people, building understanding, making us less prejudiced and more empathetic. There are so many places in the world that tourism can have an impact. The best thing that we can do is ensure that wherever we go, we make a positive difference.