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In March 2020, when the world stood still and countries sealed borders, it was impossible to imagine vaccines emerging by year-end. The global travel industry might not have believed that traveler demand would begin manifesting in 2021 and in some cases surpass 2019 levels.
Science is not only bringing the travel recovery to a restart this year, but it is also saving millions of lives — in spite of the over three million lost globally over the last year. The power of the Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines is being witnessed in the U.S., for example, where travel began showing signs of recovery the first week of April.
As of this month, 60 percent of Americans are unafraid to hit the road again, a pandemic survey high, according to Longwoods International’s just-released data. Europe is also preparing to reopen after more than a year of isolation.
And yet as we speak, Covid is raging violently in a scenario the travel industry never imagined would repeat itself so soon post-vaccines — in India, but also spiking to varying degrees in places such as Thailand, Turkey, and Costa Rica.
That’s because vaccinations are lagging at a global level, particularly in low to middle-income nations.
The tourism industry, at global and granular levels, must speak up about vaccine equity louder than it has and take on a bigger role in tackling the issue if the industry is to return to any sense of normality. Without vaccine equity, there is no travel recovery.
Scientists had warned that for the threat of Covid to disappear, vaccine distribution and access must accelerate because of the potential for more dangerous and infectious Covid variants to emerge.
Over 100 former heads of state and Nobel Peace Prize winners also recently sent a letter to the Biden Administration urging for the release of vaccine intellectual property rights so as to accelerate manufacturing and access worldwide.
The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) briefly touched on this effort in an interview of former Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos, during the WTTC 2021 summit in Mexico.
“It’s entirely possible that a future mutation could become even more deadly, and so we’re in a bit of a race to get the world vaccinated before the mutations become a problem,” said Dr. Michael Gusmano, professor at Rutgers School of Public Health.
Deadlier Covid variants are already here — all pointing to the urgent need for the industry to get past the “vaccine tourism” headlines and stand up for the root problem that could decimate the industry all over again: vaccine equity.
Vaccine Equity Woes Will Delay Recovery
The inequity in vaccines across the world is staggering: the latest data shows 82 percent of Covid vaccines have gone to the richer countries while only 0.2 percent have gone to low income nations, according to the United Nations World Health Organization’s director general Tedros Adhanom. That’s one in four vaccinated in richer regions versus one in 500 in regions such as Latin America and the Caribbean and Africa.
First-dose vaccine levels are currently at 59 percent in Israel, 51.6 percent in the U.K., and 44 percent in the U.S., against 4.6 percent in Jamaica and less than one percent in South Africa per Reuters’ vaccination tracker, which is based on country data collected by Oxford University,
UNWHO’s Adhanom recently called this global inequity “not only a moral outrage, but also economically and epidemiologically self-defeating.”
Under the UNWHO’s Covax initiative, which pools vaccines and agreements from rich countries to sell at reduced cost to low to middle income nations, 40 million vaccines have been deployed to 100 countries. It’s far short of the projected 100 million at this stage. Covax has faced numerous challenges and delays, not least rich countries hogging more vaccine supply than they needed, plus slashed doses of AstraZeneca from India due to the crisis there, and pauses in the use of Johnson & Johnson.
As vaccine inequality lingers and deepens, travel demand and bookings are rising from inoculated U.S. and European travelers who are ready to be tourists again and leisure in foreign lands where unvaccinated populations reside. Passport privilege is all set to become vaccine passport privilege.
While it’s likely a great number of travelers will explore their backyards in the U.S. or in Europe rather than go international, the data also shows a surge in demand for Mexico and the Caribbean island vacations — where vaccines are lagging in most parts of the region. It’s a vulnerability that could affect both the vaccinated and the unvaccinated, particularly in light of potential variants.
Until community spread is low in a tourism-dependent destination, there is still danger there for all involved. “These are incredibly effective vaccines with high levels of efficacy but they’re not 100 percent,” Gusmano said. “So it’s still possible for you to get the virus, get very sick, even die, and even spread it to other people. It’s much less likely but it’s possible.”
Not going overboard with the pent up demand numbers will be key for destinations where vaccines are lagging, even though the latter are eager to see their numbers return to pre-pandemic levels.
Vaccine Hesitancy Must be Addressed
But it’s not just about vaccine equity in other destinations that could further delay travel’s recovery. For regions such as North America, the issue of vaccine hesitancy among populations of color is a valid public health concern. Alongside equitable access, it’s a threat to the public health and by extension, to the full recovery of movement and tourism.
“I would rather see the government increasing public health efforts and education at outreach at explicitly addressing the fears and concerns — not treating people as if they are stupid or evil, but they are understandably fearful and have legitimate lack of trust in big corporations and maybe the U.S. federal government,” Gusmano said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control’s national data on vaccinations by race and ethnicity received from 47 reporting states and analyzed by the Kaiser Family Foundation, vaccination rates are lagging among people of color — for April 13 first-dose vaccination numbers, nearly two thirds were white, while just 11 percent were Hispanic, nine percent were Black, and even lower percentages for Native Americans or Native Hawaiians.
GlobalData shared recently that vaccine hesitancy is at 23 percent in the U.S. and that as a result, “outbound recovery from the U.S. could be slowed.”
The industry’s giddiness around the signs of recovery that keep pouring in since March 2021 is understandable. But it’s also shortsighted — and detrimental navel gazing — in thinking this is the end of Covid’s ability to cause yet another massive hit to tourism economies.
Destination management organizations advocating for financial support for small businesses that are women-owned or owned by people of color — groups disproportionately hit by Covid — is important, but economic recovery cannot happen when there are inequities in vaccine access for communities of color as well as unaddressed vaccine hesitancy.
Tourism Plays a Critical Role
Tourism remains a $4 trillion industry, as of 2020, with increased political muscle and influence as evidenced over the last year. But it can and must go beyond advocating for a reopening of international borders and obsessing over the ethics of Covid passports and instead use its platform to push for vaccine equity and uptake within its respective borders as well as across the global industry’s value chain.
Tourism industries in Greece and the Dominican Republic, for instance, have begun inoculating tourism workers, a smart compromise in restarting while ensuring vaccine equity among those who are the most exposed to travelers but also among those populations that might have had difficulty accessing shots sooner. The U.S. Virgin Islands hosted a ticketed vaccinated-only in-person carnival fete at the end of April to target hesitancy among young adults.
Each destination’s tourism organization has a unique perspective and data on its destination given that tourism links with multiple industries and sectors, and it’s the kind of information that policymakers can use to target vaccine uptake, Gusmano said.
“Obviously there’s a tension; the sooner the pandemic ends, the sooner people start traveling again and spending money and the industry has vested interest is make sure this happens quickly, but secondly people within the industry have voice and valuable things to say to policymakers about the consequences of how things are working but also how they can function in a more ethically appropriate way.”
In the U.S., where experts now say herd immunity might never be reached, vulnerable communities of color either continue to struggle with access to vaccines or are dealing with vaccine hesitancy caused by a health system that hasn’t treated them well historically.
As of April 2021, in the District of Columbia, Black people made up 69 percent of Covid deaths yet just 36 percent have received vaccinations, according to the CDC’s analysis of data collected by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Hispanic people are also lagging in uptake in many states.
The latter could even be part of the reason the travel industry is facing a shortage of staff, Gusmano agreed. Vaccine hesitancy or lack of vaccine access could translate into a reluctance to return to tourist-facing jobs.
“The tourism industry has an opportunity to speak for the thousands of low to moderate paid employees who are working in restaurants, cleaning sheets, doing all the hard work, in the industry,” said Gusmano, adding that not paying attention to equity and allocation will only prolong the pandemic.
“If we are perpetuating the sorts of inequalities we currently have in terms of who is getting the vaccine and who is not, the pandemic is not going to end as soon as it could. And that means that the tourism industry, the entertainment industry, are all going to continue to suffer much longer than is necessary.”
While public and private sector trade groups such as the United National World Tourism Organization and WTTC have a role to play in speaking out and advocating for vaccine equity, it is also incumbent on all major travel businesses and destinations with vaccine access to do everything in their power to address vaccine equity within their communities and their primary global tourism markets where jabs are lagging.
And not just for the sake of economic recovery and reaching pre-pandemic arrival numbers, but for the fundamental element at the core of our global industry — humanity.
As it happens, it’s National Travel and Tourism Week in the U.S. A great time to start speaking up on this issue.