Some people hate the idea of proving they’ve had a COVID-19 vaccine in order to travel and cruise again. Others say it might be the best way to keep tourism workers and international travellers safe, while making cruise vacations carefree again. Who’s right?
If one issue can divide a nation these days, it’s whether their government should issue digital certificates that prove the holder has been vaccinated against COVID-19 and can be used as a passport for cross-border travel. In fact, research shows that even business leaders are divided on the issue.
Proponents of a so-called vaccine passport say it would reduce the number of infected people bringing the virus and its variants from one country to another, thereby making travel safer and easier for host countries and the vacationing public. This is particularly true for cruise vacations where there is less opportunity for social distancing, where multiple countries are visited, and where a ship with even a single infected person could be forced to abandon its itinerary and return to its home port to disembark all passengers.
On the other hand, opponents believe a vaccine passport could be used to discriminate against people who can’t get the vaccine or don’t want one, and that it could violate their medical privacy. For example, people with underlying health issues who can’t have a vaccine, children under 16 years of age who aren’t eligible for one yet, and those who don’t trust vaccines may be denied an equal right to travel. And if vaccination information is held in a central database, some worry it could be used for other purposes beyond travel such as access to concert venues, movie theatres, sports arenas, indoor restaurants, etc.
But before we choose sides, let’s take a closer look at the facts, starting with why a vaccine passport might be a good idea.
First, the concept of a vaccine record is not new.
Since 1935 global travellers have been using the International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis (ICVP) issued by the World Health Organization (WHO). Nick-named a “yellow card” because of its colour, the document is an official vaccination record that is recognized internationally and may be required for entry to countries where there are increased health risks for travelers. For example, proof of vaccination for yellow fever is a requirement to visit some countries in Africa and South America.
So, the only difference now is that we would replace the old paper-based “medical passport” record with a digital one.
In the United States, the Centres for Disease Control provides paper proof of vaccinations known as a ‘white card’, and every state maintains some sort of immunization database. And a number of private organizations and governments are developing simple and voluntary ways for people to digitally record their vaccinations, including in New York which has introduced its Excelsior Pass as “a free, fast and secure way to present digital proof of COVID-19 vaccination.”
Second, the use of this digital vaccination record could be limited to international travel. In other words, it would not be used within the country of issuance for any purpose other than for being granted entry to a foreign country that requires it, and for transportation to and from those countries, including on cruise ships.
Third, this could be a short-term solution. In fact, once the world develops a reasonable level of herd immunity against the virus and its variants, a vaccine travel passport scheme may no longer be needed, although some countries may decide to keep offering consumers a digital vaccine record for those who want one.
And last, whether everyone wants a vaccine passport system or not is likely a moot point because many countries are moving ahead with them regardless of what detractors think.
For example, many of the 27 member countries of the European Union have been thinking about creating a vaccine travel passport, and some countries have already or are about to accept proof of COVID-19 immunization, including Belize, Ecuador, Iceland, Israel, Slovenia, Thailand, and Estonia. Others have introduced more stringent entry requirements for non-vaccinated travellers, including multiple Covid-19 tests and longer quarantine periods upon arrival, sometimes including mandatory stays in government sanctioned hotels.
The same is true with the cruise industry, where many lines now require proof of vaccination for Covid-19 from passengers and crew for some or all voyages including Celebrity, Crystal, Cunard, Lindblad Expeditions, NCL, Princess, Royal Caribbean, Saga, Seabourn, Silversea, Viking and Windstar.
In response, some American states like Florida, Texas and Tennessee have passed, or will soon pass laws that bar businesses from requiring customers to show proof of vaccination. And across the globe many countries are vigorously debating whether a digital vaccination record is needed, and what it should be used for. It’s not clear yet how cruise lines operating in Florida might react when they restart operations there later this year, but private businesses are usually free to do business with whomever they want, subject to existing anti-discrimination laws.
Of course, for digital vaccine passports to be effective and efficient, major tourist destinations and cruise lines would need to agree on the type of information they should contain, and what type of technology they should be based upon (e.g., QR codes like used on airline tickets) to make them tamper-proof and universally readable. Even if there is international agreement on these passports, additional travel safety precautions will likely be necessary for many months to come.
For example, pre- and post-travel Covid-19 tests may still be necessary, especially while infection levels remain high and new variants continue to spread. Booster shots may be needed each year to keep travel passports valid, and for those previously infected, some proof of existing Covid-19 antibodies will be required.
In addition, vaccinated travellers will still need to comply with mask wearing and social distancing rules in most countries; many hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions will continue to operate at reduced capacity; and cruise ships in particular will be operated under strict protocols. Some of these cruise ship protocols may include Covid-19 tests on arrival, mask wearing in most parts of the ship, no self-serve buffets, itineraries that could change subject to local regulations, shore excursions that take place in a ‘bubble,’ and temporary onboard isolation for any passenger with virus-like symptoms.
While vaccine passports will make international travel safer for both travellers and people working in tourism, they won’t be a panacea. However, they will help the hospitality industry get back on track and growing again. They will also provide a much-needed economic boost to the cruise sector, which has been financially devasted by Covid-19, and needs to return to full business mode as soon as possible.
As for me, I fully support the introduction of vaccine passports for international travel. And, if one of the side effects is that more people sign up for Covid-19 vaccinations because they don’t want to miss out on travel, so much the better.
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