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The Ethics of Vaccinated Travel

By Mark Ellwood

Apr 27, 2021

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In Phuket, Thailand, local vaccinations have ramped up with the hopes of achieving herd immunity—and welcoming visitors—by this summer.

Photo by Huw Penson/Shutterstock

In Phuket, Thailand, local vaccinations have ramped up with the hopes of achieving herd immunity—and welcoming visitors—by this summer.

Even if you can travel internationally, should you? We posed the hard questions to ethicists and sustainable travel operators so we can take our next trips mindfully.

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Earlier this month, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) gave travelers the news they’d been waiting to hear: Fully vaccinated people “are less likely to get and spread” COVID-19, the CDC said in an April 2 update. They “can now travel at low risk to themselves.” Suddenly, the United States—considered a virus hot zone for much of 2020—now has more than a quarter of its population (and rising, rapidly) vaccinated against coronavirus, making America a global leader in the next phase of the pandemic. Many are desperate to go somewhere, anywhere, on a “vaxication” (the latest unwelcome travel neologism after momcation and bleisure). But before answering the question, Where should I go?, consider asking, Should I go?

We consulted with experts in their fields—biomedical ethicists, who study the moral questions surrounding medical advances, and tour operators behind sustainable travel organizations—to identify the right questions to ask as a responsible traveler before booking your next flight.

Is my trip nonessential or essential?

After a year or more of being encouraged to stay local, it’s easy to default to delay, to assume the answer to “Should I travel?” is simply “no.” It’s more complicated than that, though. If tourism doesn’t restart, the scarring could be economically lethal. “One in 10 of the world’s population relies on travel and tourism for their livelihood—everyone from dive masters in the Caribbean to trekking guides in Nepal,” says Jeff Greenwald, executive director of Ethical Traveler. Those now able to travel might want to cross borders for more than a mai tai and the chance to sit by a pool, too: look at the #loveisnottourism campaign, spotlighting long-distance couples separated by border closures. “And what’s considered necessary travel?” adds biomedical ethicist Amy McGuire of Baylor College. “I would include social connections with loved ones, especially elderly relatives—we know that not having those connections can do real harm.”  

The CDC also permits international travel for those who have been fully vaccinated; several countries welcome Americans now, albeit with protocols in place, even for those who have received both doses of any vaccine. Take Barbados, for example, where one or two days’ quarantine remains mandatory, or Ecuador, which retains stringent mask protocols. 

What are the vaccination rates and COVID case counts at my destination?

Your first bit of trip research should be about vaccination rates at your destination, says McGuire. What percentage of the local population has been vaccinated? Is vaccination widely, and affordably, available to them? The reasons are both ethical and epidemiological. We don’t yet know whether fully vaccinated people can transmit new strains of coronavirus, even while remaining asymptomatic themselves, she notes. “Think of it like secondhand smoking, where we create dangers for others as well as ourselves,” she says. “Ask yourself what are your individual obligations to others, and to the larger social good?” Families keen to travel, of course, will likely have members age 16 or younger, for whom vaccination is not yet authorized; data around their ability to transmit in the same way is still unclear.

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Many developing nations are relying on Covax—co-led by vaccine alliance Gavi, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), and the World Health Organization, with UNICEF as a distribution partner—for their vaccine supply. Funded by wealthier nations, the program aims to supply 2 billion jabs to 92 of the world’s poorest countries by the end of this year. Unfortunately, it has faced uphill challenges that make it increasingly unlikely it will meet that target, and so has led to so-called vaccine diplomacy, where countries like China have deployed their surplus supply for political gains. Consider such inequities of vaccine supply, too, as a matter of principle.

Is the destination ready for—and welcoming—visitors?

Locals in some tourism-dependent destinations have already protested against surges in local cases that they believe are connected to arrivals: look at the U.S. Virgin Islands, where more than half the GDP is tourism dependent, but locals urge visitors to stay away in a Facebook group called “What’s Going on St. Thomas?” Greg Takehara, CEO of Tourism Cares, encourages travelers to think about being good guests: “The big question to ask as travelers is: Do they want us there? Is the local community going to receive you with open arms or are they telling you, ‘We’re not fully vaccinated, so we don’t want tourism yet’?”

St. Bart’s is one such island nation: The French government announced that St. Bart’s would need to enact a fast-acting vaccination campaign—which began April 19 for all eligible adults—for borders to reopen. If all goes to plan, that could be by mid-May. 

Across the globe, look at Thailand, which has announced an aggressive program of localized vaccination in Phuket, aiming to reach herd immunity among locals so it’s safer to welcome back vaccinated visitors as planned in July. The Maldives, too, has debuted a “3V” strategy, or “visit, vaccinate, and vacation.” The archipelago plans to offer vaccines on arrival to visitors while also pursuing widespread vaccination locally—as of mid-April, more than half the population had received at least one jab. French Polynesia unlocks its borders on May 1, after making the vaccine available to every adult who wants one; when it reopened for several months last year, rates remained low with a few spikes in infections caused by local transmission. 

Compare that with Vietnam. During the pandemic, it’s been an outstanding example, keeping cases of COVID-19 under 2,000 in a country of almost 97 million. Its borders are largely closed to tourism now, but whenever they reopen, that past success means little to no widespread natural immunity among the population—and makes taking a trip there harder to justify in the short term.

Would I be a burden on a strained healthcare system if I got sick while traveling? 

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Even if vaccination rates are high, it’s important to look at other elements of your destination, says Robin Ingle. He has worked in the travel health sphere for four decades; he’s currently CEO of Novus Health, a healthcare technology company. Well-funded and -developed healthcare systems are crucial, he says. Should you fall sick—with COVID-19 or anything else—you’ll want reassurance you’ll be able to receive care; simultaneously, you don’t want your illness to strain a fragile system already struggling to treat its population. By this metric, Ingle suggests Chile in Latin America, which has not one but two major, high-end hospital chains, and Israel, long the Middle East’s hub for complex health cases; Costa Rica, too, is a standout in its region. 

In Europe, the U.K.—famed for its NHS—could also be an option if, as expected, the government there places the U.S. on a small list of permitted countries when it loosens restrictions on international travel for its own citizens, a decision earmarked for next month. Greece just brought forward its reopening date from mid-May to April. “The minister of tourism mentioned they had hired 6,000 doctors and nurses, and invested in healthcare facilities in all the islands and tourist spots,” Ingle says. “They believe they need to invest in healthcare that way for their citizens, and so as to attract tourists back.”

What is daily life like for those living in my destination?

Alongside vaccination rates and healthcare infrastructure, there are more abstract considerations. Think about the kind of trip you’re taking. Will much of your activity be outdoors, or inside? Can you maintain social distancing and other mitigation measures while enjoying the destination? “Do your research and get educated before you go,” says Naledi Khabo, chief executive of the Africa Tourism Association. “What restrictions or curfews are in place? What will be open or closed? It might not be as free and open as normal, but it’s better than sitting at home in quarantine, of course.” Khabo warns against COVID fatigue, or carelessness that’s all too easy to slip into when you’re in ‘vacation mode.’ “When you’re on the ground, act respectfully. I’ve seen plenty of people not wearing masks when engaging with tourism professionals who might not be vaccinated.” Jeff Greenwald of Ethical Traveler puts it more pithily: “You won’t be on vacation from following protocols.”  

What else should I consider?

Greenwald also flags another consideration: the ever-present threat of variants. These can, and have, appeared anywhere, at any time. “Even a responsible traveler could pick up a [new] resistant variant and carry it home with them,” he says, noting that if you’re in a country where such a variant emerges but escape infection, you might still be affected if borders close in response. “You risk being marooned in any country you’re visiting for quite some time, so don’t go anywhere you’re not willing to stay for a couple of months.” It’s another reason to consider using a travel specialist, now more than ever. They will monitor such developments proactively on your behalf, and you’ll have long-distance assistance in any emergency.

Perhaps, though, ATC’s Naledi Khabo offers the best overall guidance. The mindset of pandemic-era travel, she says, should be one we all adopt long term, following ethical, sustainable, and respectful practices. “Now more than ever, it can’t just be all about ‘me’. It’s selfish to think just about yourself as a traveler, and not necessarily the destination,” she says. “Yes, you should travel, but just make sure to do it mindfully.”

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