It seems like an eternity ago (or maybe just yesterday?) that we were fretting over vaccine passports and the new normal for international travel in the era of the pandemic. But one by one, countries throughout the world have dropped their COVID testing and vaccine requirements as the public health threat has become less dire amid mounting vaccination rates, immunity from past infections, and vastly improved treatments. The United States, however, is one of the last holdouts when it comes to requiring that foreign arrivals are vaccinated, and the White House this week issued a statement that it plans to uphold the requirement for now.
The statement comes amid growing calls for the United States to lift the vaccine mandate, which applies to all foreign arrivals entering the USA—it does not apply to U.S. travelers arriving stateside from abroad. Among them is a bill to repeal the vaccine mandate that was passed this week by the U.S. House of Representatives.
“While COVID-19 is no longer the disruptive threat that it once was, the Administration opposes Congressional action to reverse the vaccination requirement for noncitizen nonimmigrants entering the United States by air. This policy has allowed loved ones across the globe to reunite while reducing the spread of COVID-19 and the burdens it places on the health care system in the United States,” the Administration said in a statement.
The policy dates back to October 2021, when President Joe Biden replaced the country-by-country COVID-19 restrictions that had been in effect with a “global air travel policy that relied primarily on vaccination to ensure that international air travel to the United States could resume safely.” The newer blanket approach was developed based on advice from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Administration noted.
Last week, President Biden informed Congress that he plans to end the twin national emergencies for addressing COVID-19 on May 11, the Associated Press reported. Former President Donald Trump first declared a public health emergency on January 31, 2020, and later declared the COVID-19 pandemic a national emergency in March 2020. The emergencies have been repeatedly extended and are now set to expire on May 11.
“As we approach the end of the public health emergency, the Administration will review all relevant policies, including this one,” the White House said in its statement about the vaccine requirement for foreign arrivals. “Just as the establishment of this public health policy was guided by science, any termination or modification of this policy should be as well.” The statement noted that the Congressional bill to end the vaccine mandate for travel “undercuts that critical principle.”
The U.S. Travel Association, a Washington, D.C.–based organization that represents the U.S. travel industry, has also called on the government to drop the requirement. During a press conference held in Washington last week, the group outlined its top priorities for fueling travel economy growth , and among them was the need to eliminate the vaccine requirement for international visitors.
Lengthy visa wait times for inbound travelers to the USA are also a deterrent
Another top priority, according to U.S. Travel, is working with federal agencies to decrease wait times for international travel visas. Average interview wait times for the top 10 inbound markets that require a visa to enter the United States (not including China) are more than 400 days, U.S. Travel reports. Meanwhile, the association points out that global average wait times have dropped to below 150 days for the first time since 2021.
Only 40 countries are currently in the United States’ Visa Waiver Program (predominantly countries in Europe and some Asian destinations, including Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan). Travelers from all other countries, which represent 43 percent of foreign travelers to the United States, require a visa interview and visa.
Geoff Freeman, president and CEO of U.S. Travel, told reporters that the current visa wait time for citizens of Mexico is 549 days, and that it’s 872 days for citizens of Colombia.
“It’s essentially a de facto travel ban,” Freeman said during last week’s press conference.
In an effort to bring wait times down, the U.S. State Department has implemented a “Super Saturdays” initiative where embassies and consulates open on Saturdays to process visas. But U.S. Travel reports that wait times are “still excessively high despite marked improvements in countries like India.” The association estimates that the U.S. economy lost $5 billion in travel spending from visa delays alone last year, and that 5 million travelers and $7 billion in spending could be lost this year if the situation doesn’t improve.
Laura Dannen Redman contributed reporting.