While SARS-CoV-2 has stolen most of the headlines for the past year, there’s another bug that’s beginning to spread amongst Americans: the travel bug. According to a PYMNTS study, over 40 percent of U.S. residents say they would like to do more international travel, and nearly 60 percent say they would like to do more domestic travel once a vaccine is widely available. And, according to CNBC, TSA screenings at airports exceeded one million per day in March, representing the highest air travel records seen in a year.
Despite all the enthusiasm, though, there’s one giant fly in the suntan lotion when it comes to travel: vaccination passports. At the moment, there are just over 75 countries that will accept American travelers amid the continuing pandemic, and many of those have heavy restrictions, often requiring a two-week quarantine upon arrival, which certainly isn’t the best way to begin a vacation. Looking at the State Department’s travel advisory page paints an even more dire picture. There’s not a single county that the agency ranks at Level 1, the lowest level for concern. And in the Level 2 category, there are just 16 countries. The rest fall into Level 3, “Reconsider Travel,” or Level 4, “Do Not Travel.”
So the need for some kind of vaccination passport seems pretty clear. Countries naturally want to protect their own citizens from unvaccinated visitors who could potentially spread the SARS-CoV-2 virus. And vaccination passports aren’t a completely new idea. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Americans needed to show either a scar on their arm or paperwork confirming that they had been vaccinated against smallpox in order to be allowed to work and participate in much of society. Today, travel to some countries such as Paraguay requires a “yellow card,” proof that individuals have been vaccinated against yellow fever.
Yet the COVID-19 vaccine is proving difficult to roll out and even more difficult to track across nations, meaning a return to true, pre-pandemic global travel is likely a long way off. In the United States alone, there are different political opinions on the vaccine itself, and on requirements to show proof of vaccination status in order to enter public facilities like restaurants and sports arenas. Leaders in Arizona, Utah, Florida, Texas and Idaho have either banned vaccination passports outright or expressed the opinion that their states will not participate in any kind of official vaccine passport program. Conversely, New York State has launched its own version of an electronic vaccine passport called the Excelsior Pass.
If different states in one country can’t even agree on some kind of standardized vaccine tracking and verification system, it seems unlikely that countries around the world will be able to do so in order to open widespread border crossings. And, even if such a system could come about, there’s the issue of discrimination to consider.
“Given the very unequal access to vaccines we are witnessing in continental Europe, there is also an issue of equal opportunity and potential discrimination,” Andrea Renda, a senior research fellow at the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels, told The New York Times. In other words, if residents of certain countries simply don’t have access to vaccines, should they be prohibited from enjoying travel?
A Changing Travel Landscape
So while enthusiasm for travel is certainly high, it remains to be seen what exactly such travel will look like and when it will come about. For now, it seems as though one trend will include more personal service in booking trips.
For its part, travel booking giant Expedia recently announced that it will offer services to be more of a “travel partner” than a simple booking engine. That follows on from trends in which travel agents are seeing renewed support from customers. According to a report from IBISWorld, travel agencies are set to see an increase of 65.1 percent in revenues in 2021. The reliance on agencies is driven, in part, by a travel landscape that’s gotten harder to navigate, especially in terms of cancellation fees and COVID-related booking requirements.
It’s also looking like the pandemic will leave a social distancing footprint on the travel industry for a while. According to a report from American Express, 75 percent of those surveyed said that complete privacy will remain an important part of their luxury travel plans, and 80 percent said they would go to destinations off-season so that crowds will be less of an issue.
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