Home Opinion Vaccine Passports Could Boost Tourism Recovery Despite Fairness Concerns

Vaccine Passports Could Boost Tourism Recovery Despite Fairness Concerns

Covid Vaccine Travel Passport
Covid Vaccine Travel Passport Image Source: schengenvisainfo.com

Tommy Yang – The requirement of COVID-19 vaccination certificates for travel could assist the struggling tourism industry to recover amid the global pandemic, despite ethical questions about its fairness, a US travel industry expert told Sputnik.

The administration of US President Joe Biden is working on a plan to require almost all foreign visitors coming to the United States to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, as part of the government’s efforts to lift the travel restrictions introduced during the global pandemic, media reported last week.

Lockdown measures and travel restrictions enforced by various governments to contain the spread of COVID-19 have dealt a devastating blow to the global tourism industry. International travel has become extremely difficult during the pandemic. In addition to requiring foreign arrivals to present recent negative COVID-19 test results, a number of countries have gone as far as a fourteen-day quarantine in designated hotels upon arrival.

International tourism and its closely linked sectors suffered an estimated loss of $2.4 trillion in 2020 due to the direct and indirect impacts of a steep decline in international tourist arrivals, according to a report from the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) released in June.

As a number of developed countries, including Canada, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States, have fully vaccinated more than 50% of their populations, many governments have begun to contemplate requiring vaccination certificates as part of their plan to gradually open borders to international travelers.

Canada announced in late July that international travelers with vaccinations approved by the Canadian government would be allowed to enter the country for discretionary travel beginning September 7, and fully vaccinated American citizens and permanent residents could enter the country for similar purposes as early as Monday.


If the Biden administration introduces a similar COVID-19 vaccine passport scheme for international travel, the suffering tourism industry in the United States is expected to see a much-needed boost, a US expert on the hospitality industry suggested.

“Pre-pandemic, the US received over 80 million international visitors spending approximately $155 billion [2019]. Returning our international travel both for incoming travelers and for the 44 million people who were traveling abroad [excluding Canada and Mexico] in 2019, is imperative for the global economy. So I do believe that a form of vaccine passport will boost confidence among international travelers – both incoming to the US and those traveling from the US,” Christian E. Hardigree, Dean of the School of Hospitality at the Metropolitan State University of Denver, told Sputnik.

However, the expert pointed out that a vaccination requirement is unlikely to work for domestic travel in the United States due to the society’s focus on individual freedoms.

“Having said that, a vaccine passport within the US will have some hurdles/obstacles for a society rooted on individual freedoms. I think it is unlikely that States will have passport requirements among each other [i.e. unlikely that you’ll be stopped at the border of Colorado and Kansas and asked to show proof of vaccination],” she said.

The expert also acknowledged the inequality such a vaccine passport scheme would create between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated.

“I think a passport requirement would benefit the tourism industry for a specific segment (particularly the wealthy) – but you do highlight that it would likely perpetuate a continued discrepancy between the vaccinated and unvaccinated. This also has to be balanced with the countries/states/municipalities where the entire fiber of their economy is rooted in tourism – and a total bar on travelers jeopardizes the existence of their citizenry. Some countries/areas may prefer to continue ‘some’ tourism, despite recognizing that it may be temporarily inequitable,” she said.


While developed countries in the West have reached substantial vaccination rates among their population thanks to sufficient vaccine supplies, developing countries have been struggling to secure COVID-19 vaccine shots for their citizens.

Many developing countries, especially those in Africa, including Nigeria, Mozambique, Sudan and Kenya, have only been able to vaccinate less than 3% of their citizens.

The massive gap in COVID-19 vaccine access between developed and developing countries has led Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), to call vaccine equity “the challenge of our time.”

The WHO chief, along with Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund Kristalina Georgieva, President of the World Bank Group David Malpass, and Director-General of the World Trade Organization Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, issued an open letter in May urging world leaders to demonstrate a new commitment to global vaccine equity.

The inequality in global COVID-19 vaccine access makes it critical for governments to allow alternative options for unvaccinated travelers when they try to open up borders with vaccine passports, Professor Hardigree suggested.

“We find those in marginalized and vulnerable populations are the most disadvantaged for vaccination rates. I do think that we’ll need to have alternative options, at least in the short term, for travel. Of course, under US law, there are some exceptions for medical and religious beliefs – so that further enhances the need for an alternative mechanism to ensure traveler safety [such as showing a recent negative test],” she said.


As various countries have developed different kinds of COVID-19 vaccines, the type of accessible vaccines to a prospective international traveler could become another obstacle when implementing the vaccine passport strategy.

Similar to the requirement of the Canadian government, many countries require foreign travelers to have vaccination certificates for the type of COVID-19 vaccines approved in their destination country.

However, many Western governments have only approved COVID-19 vaccines developed by Western pharmaceutical companies, including Pfizer, Moderna, Astrazeneca and Janssen. COVID-19 vaccines developed by pharmaceutical companies from other countries, such as China, India and Russia, have not been approved by Western governments.

If a traveler from China, India or Russia wants to visit a Western country that requires a COVID-19 vaccination certificate, they would thus have to be fully vaccinated with vaccines approved by the destination country’s government.

Professor Hardigree pointed out that such situations make it more important for Western governments to offer alternative options for those travelers.

“The US is wrestling to ensure we ‘get it right.’ This is where the recent negative test might be a proper alternative. It’s also one where the US is working to help provide vaccines to other countries where supply lines are limited. At the end of the day – getting our worldwide population vaccinated and creating herd immunity is critical to minimizing the risks the virus poses to everyone,” she said.

Even for tourists moving between Western countries where the governments have approved the same COVID-19 vaccines, how the destination government can verify and recognize the vaccination certificate offered by the traveler’s home country could become another challenge in the vaccine passport strategy.

To avoid the chance of fraud with paper-based COVID-19 vaccination certificates, a digital vaccine passport system might be needed for different governments to mutually recognize each other’s vaccine certificates.

Professor Hardigree has expressed doubts, however, about whether different countries could agree upon such a digital system for COVID-19 vaccination certificates.

“The digital process does have the possibility of reducing fraud based upon the paper-based certificates – but it also carries with it the enhanced risk of cyber attacks and hacking. I don’t know that it’s realistic that all governments would agree on a single system. And there’s the added risk of which country is responsible to build and maintain the system, which country(ies) has/have access to the data, who is responsible for cyber security, who can release info, etc,” she said.

The expert also raised a number of other possible challenges of the vaccine passport strategy.

“How do we ensure equitable treatment for our incoming visitors – balanced with how we ensure the safety of our citizenry? If we did have some governments agreeing to a single process, how would we handle those travelers from countries not part of that agreement? And how would we handle those fleeing political or humanitarian persecution whose primary objective isn’t focused on vaccination rates, but avoiding the persecution aspect?” she said.

The expert stressed that different governments need to take ethical questions into consideration before introducing a COVID-19 vaccine passport.

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