By remaining silent on vaccine equity, the travel industry's big players are as accountable as vaccine-hoarding governments for a deepening tourism divide. Intrepid Travel is setting an example — will others follow?
On the cusp of travel’s summer reopening in vaccinated destinations, Skift advocated for the industry to step up and push for vaccine equity.
Three months later, the percentage of people in low income countries who have received one dose of Covid vaccines stands at 1.1 percent, according to the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO).
Meanwhile, Covid certificates in hand, Americans, Europeans and other privileged globetrotters are enjoying a “hot vaxxed summer” in their backyard, heading to the Caribbean, cruising, or vacationing long-haul. Vaccine tourism continues as well, while “quarantine tourism” is emerging amid the Delta variant and mounting travel restrictions.
It’s a harrowing tale of two tourism industries — one that’s experiencing an early economic recovery directly attributed to vaccines, and the other awaiting doses while reopening tourism-dependent economies to inoculated travelers at the risk of infecting their communities.
Let’s set aside, for now, vaccine hoarding by rich governments — a handful are already distributing or planning third booster shots — and their lack of a sense of responsibility to share jabs with less privileged, tourism-dependent destinations.
What can the tourism industry actually do to address the global inequity in vaccine distribution? Whether it’s influential organizations such as the World Travel and Tourism Council and the United Nations World Tourism Organization, or travel’s largest stakeholders — where does the responsibility lie when focusing on economic recovery and pushing more travelers out the door, while contributing to a deepening divide?
“The global institutions that drive tourism — UNWTO, WTTC and other global constructs — have to make a stronger voice and have to be heard advocating for the tourism family,” said Jamaica tourism minister Edmund Bartlett, who most recently addressed vaccine equity concerns at the UNWTO Tourism Recovery Summit in Riyadh.
Bartlett told Skift that while a difficult conversation to have amid a pandemic, the drive must be to get those countries with the capacity to assist to step up to the table.
“I would urge WTTC to get back on track,” said Bartlett, noting WTTC’s strong relationship with “the industrial world.”
Virginia Messina, senior vice president and acting CEO at the World Travel and Tourism Council, made up of the travel’s industry private sector, said that the organization has been holding conversations around vaccine efforts behind the scenes, most recently with the International Air Transport Association and the Pacific Asia Travel Association.
Messina said that there’s also been some effort from members in assisting with targeting vaccine access, but that it may not have been highlighted.
“I think it would be interesting to really understand exactly what our members are doing because I think they’re probably doing more than what we see or what we think,” Messina said. “But we could certainly be more vocal about this, whether it’s from the public or the private sector side, whilst we know a lot is happening behind the scenes.”
The UNWTO said in a statement to Skift that vaccine equity was “wholly consistent” with its position throughout the pandemic.
“We call for unprecedented levels of cooperation and solidarity and stress the importance of public and private sectors working effectively together,” the statement read, adding that UNWTO will continue to work with governments, destinations and the private sector to push for greater consistency in travel rules as well as access to vaccinations.
On Wednesday, tour operator Intrepid Travel announced the launch of a global vaccine equity campaign, with a two-track approach that targets vaccine education as well as barriers to vaccine access in local communities where Intrepid Travel’s staff are located and where tours are restarting.
“Our customers come from the U.S., the UK, Australia, and they’re then traveling to Asia, Latin America, Africa — and it’s fine if our customers think they’re safe, but the brutal reality is that in many of these destinations, communities are not safe and secure,” said James Thornton, CEO at Intrepid Group. “I just feel I’ve got a responsibility to try and lead a larger procurement of vaccines and take an educational and access role as a global tour operator.”
Intrepid Travel has 150 departures planned in August, more than it had from March 2020 to March 2021.
On the heels of Intrepid Travel’s campaign, Expedia Group announced on Thursday a “Give the World a Shot” campaign in collaboration with UNICEF calling on travelers to book via the Expedia app to drive donations to UNICEF’s global vaccine supply effort.
While raising awareness among travelers is critical, the reality is that financial donations are not a quick fix — in fact, the inability of low to middle income countries to secure vaccines faster isn’t attributed to lack of funding if not for lack of vaccine availability due to hoarding.
The reality remains the same heading into the second half of the year: no vaccine equity, no tourism recovery. But there are important ways the travel industry’s largest players can pick up the vaccine equity baton, from advocating loudly to increase supply, to collaborating across borders to prevent a deepening tourism divide — for the benefit of all.
1. Remove Barriers to Vaccine Access
In numerous destinations, the tourism industry’s private sector has collaborated with governments in providing access to facilities for vaccine administration, as well as making vaccines available on site at hotels and resorts.
Public-private efforts have also included domestic campaigns on vaccine education to target hesitancy among locals or tourism staff, as well as staycations and cash prizes as incentives.
But ultimately, the resources and power of low to middle income tourism industries are limited in the face of economic woes and a lagging economy.
And that’s where overseas travel stakeholders can choose to resolve impediments to vaccine access through their local business networks by reaching areas that governments might not be prioritizing.
In July, through its Peru office, Intrepid Travel arranged for trekking porters and their families to reach vaccination sites from Cusco, including covering accommodation fees. Intrepid deputy operations manager Maritza Chacacanta then advocated for a vaccination site to be set up closer to the porters’ community in Calca, which was achieved in collaboration with local government.
Vaccination rates among the trekking porters rose from zero in July 2021 to 80 percent by August 1, in time to lead Intrepid’s first Inca Encounter tour departure on August 15.
The tour company has plans to mobilize the rest of its 22 global offices to offer similar support to address logistical and transportation barriers. As of September 1, all Intrepid Travel customers and trip leaders will also be required to be vaccinated.
“Anyone in a position of influence that can influence the vaccination process, and does not use their position of influence is actually perpetuating vaccine inequalities,” said Judy Kepher-Gona, founder of Kenya-based Sustainable Travel & Tourism Agenda.
Kepher-Gona said that Intrepid’s effort serves as an example of how overseas travel businesses can help.
“If you’re an overseas tour operator — you’re the big guys, you are the TUIs of this world and you move hundreds or thousands of people every year, you’re in a position of influence to promote vaccine equity.”
Jamaica’s Bartlett said that the private sector giants that are WTTC members, given their dominance over the tourism market as drivers of the demand side, are in a position of power to address vaccine equity and can achieve results faster than the supply side could on its own.
“The mega tour operators and the cruise lines that are very strong and powerful, and the airlines, so that IATA, if they are to be valuable, has to make a strong call in this regard,” Bartlett said.
“What we’re saying is that the summation of action by varied sectors within the global economy is what will make the difference — but their reticence has been deafening.”
2. Educate the Traveler Pre-Trip
Support from the travel industry could be as simple as giving voice to the issue of vaccine equity by educating consumers who are decided on traveling to unvaccinated areas, Kepher-Gona said.
“The tourism industry is so dominated by people of privilege, from the travelers to the operators, because it’s the people of privilege who can afford to buy these holidays.”
But privileged travelers are also in a position of influence, Kepher-Gona added, and keeping them informed pre-trip on all aspects of safety in the destination they plan to visit, including vaccination inequities, can only help turn them into advocates as well.
For now, consumers are paying more attention to their home government’s warnings that they present a risk when returning home from “do not travel” or “amber” zones, when in fact the risk is greater to unvaccinated communities travelers choose to visit.
“I think at the moment people’s mindset is more around, what’s my documentation, am I personally going to be safe — so I don’t think it’s quite got to that level of what is going to be the impact within the destination itself,” said Intrepid’s Thornton, adding that it isn’t until consumers are on the ground that it starts to click for them and they start asking questions.
Vaccine equity transparency from travel businesses matters, Thornton agreed.
“I think increasingly that safety and security goes beyond just your consumers, but also into your destination and your host communities that you’re entering into. So yeah I think there is a responsibility.”
3. Support Vaccine Education Efforts
The “second elephant in the room” in the recovery of tourism economies, after vaccine equity, is vaccine hesitancy, Jamaica’s Barlett said.
“I worry about tourism’s role here, because tourism is driven by the science and the data, and unfortunately we are not the gatekeepers of that, so what we have to do is carry the message and ensure our people are not hesitant and that they practice the protocols.”
Kepher-Gona believes there is a role for the industry’s stakeholders to team up on collaborative educational initiatives in destinations, and speak with one voice.
“Get the facts and spread the facts because you’re in a position of influence — and you can counter with your voices all this skepticism that is out there,” said Kepher-Gona, adding that action must then follow.
That action could involve partnering with a local travel association to get all employees educated through guest medical speakers and one on one sessions, and ultimately get them vaccinated.
In the case of Intrepid Travel, part of the focus is educating their teams overseas — more recently, a local professor in Sri Lanka who is a member of the World Health Organization’s technical advisory committee was invited to speak to the staff about Covid vaccines.
Ultimately, it’s about doing something to help, Kepher-Gona said. “There’s a government role in this, but if there’s something you can do, do what you can.”
This story was updated to include statements received from UNWTO.
Photo credit: Vaccine equity continues to fragment the industry's recovery, but tourism big stakeholders as well as organizations have ways to act now. Eric Hunsperger / Flickr