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Vaccine Roll-out Shaping Tourism Winners and Losers

Updated: May 12, 2021

“Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine” -- Dolly Parton, who donated $1M toward COVID-19 research, belts out the tune as she receives her COVID-19 shot in April. In no other time in history has an immunizer played such a starring role. Sure, we’ve had inoculations to end epidemics such as smallpox and polio, but in those days it was lifesaving and most people just took their shots – no questions asked. Today COVID-19 vaccines are not only protective, but also the best bet to save the $2.3 trillion global travel & tourism industry. They are also controversial, and can stifle, as well as jumpstart, a country’s travel industry recovery.

Get Me Out of Here

There is no question that the vaccine has given millions of people around the world the confidence to head out the door. For some it’s baby steps – to a restaurant, visits with other immunized family and friends, and local trips. For others it’s a passport to cross borders (where allowed) and fully enjoy new places and cultures. But distribution of the vaccine on a global scale is so uneven it’s hard to predict the impact for destinations. As of May 2, 104 million Americans were fully vaccinated, and there is plenty of supply in most states. That’s a lot of potential tourism dollars even if Americans spend all of their vacation time in the U.S. Meanwhile, its neighbors to the north and south are practically begging for more doses – only 10% of Mexicans and 34% of Canadians received their first shot. Globally, more than 276 million people are fully immunized, out of a population of 7.9 billion.

Where Should I Go?

Vaccines are good for travel, right? Sure, but the influence the vaccine has on destination choice can get complicated. Vaccine distribution often mirrors the distribution of wealth. We’ve all heard of the great strides in Israel (58% fully vaccinated) and even the U.K. which focused on getting a wider population at least one jab (51%). Then there are the current tragedies – surges in Brazil and India, where a combined population of 1.6 billion might have to wait years to get shots in arms. Lots of countries have opened their borders but do not have enough vaccines to stem the pandemic. Having an open border with Brazil, for example, doesn’t necessarily mean you want to go there right now.

For most U.S. travelers, the continued surge of the virus in other parts of the world is likely a deal breaker – at least for the short term. Until the pandemic is under control on a global scale, most will stay closer to home, or travel to “bubble” or “safe” destinations. Some bubbles or travel corridors are political, such as Australia and New Zealand, China and South Korea, and soon Singapore and Hong Kong where travelers can cross borders without quarantining. Most recently Israel and the UAE formed a partnership based on each others’ rising vaccination rates. Others are created in our minds, and for Americans that could mean familiar destinations such as Florida and Mexico that offer beaches, open spaces, and warm weather (and few restrictions). The Caribbean, where some islands opened to U.S. tourists as early as last summer, has been a big winner for its easy access and remote retreats (the U.S. Virgin Islands is a top performer, and plans to vaccinate half of its residents by July). Other resort destinations such as Puerto Rico may find themselves hitting record occupancy by summer. Vaccinations can also be a tourist attraction: Most recently Alaska said it will offer COVID-19 shots to tourists traveling by air starting June 1.

How people will travel will say as much about their own culture as it does about where they’re going. Canadians, for example, had done a good job controlling the virus (although there are current surges in parts), but at a great cost to tourism. In a country where only essential travel is deemed appropriate, travel shaming remains a thing. No tourist wants to feel bad about spending their money on vacation – and definitely not after a 13-month hiatus.

Where will this lead us? For one, it’s easy to say the U.S. will have a robust tourism season for its national parks and beaches considering that most Americans who want a vaccine will have one by summer. It’s more difficult to gauge the number of international tourists who will want to visit the U.S., not just because of testing and quarantine protocols, but because more than one third of Americans may still decide to skip the shot. For the many international arrivals who are also unvaccinated, visiting the U.S. still presents a substantial risk. They are more likely to stay within their borders or region for one more season.

Other markets have their own uncertainties. Europe has been hoping for a robust summer after last year’s debacle, but low vaccine rates and the surging virus in some countries could put the kibosh on yet another season. Some destinations see opportunities where others are more cautious. Lingering safety concerns and restrictions in Italy, Germany, and France, for instance, allow more aggressive destinations to shine. Some countries are rolling out the red carpet for vaccinated travelers – Iceland, Greece and Croatia for instance are the early birds catching the worm as other destinations mull over their travel future.

How it Plays Out

It’s still early days for travel’s “recovery,” and there are no clear answers on how or when global travel will normalize. We do know there will be winners and losers, and the vaccine will play a big role in how that plays out. Open borders and welcome arms may trump health concerns for some nations, but few people will want to travel to a place where hospitals are still overwhelmed, and shutdowns are in order. Travelers will continue to watch the number of cases in a destination because that will impact their entire experience – whether they are vaccinated or not. And if they are vaccinated, they might still opt to stay closer to home for fear of spreading the disease to others or catching a variant. It’s ludicrous to think just because someone has been vaccinated, they’re on the next flight to somewhere.

Think too long and miss out on a great summer or fall? Take the cautious route and let it all shake out? The vaccine has opened so many possibilities for travelers and destinations alike but there is no cure for uncertainty. Consumers will have to make their own personal choices, and destinations should protect their own citizens before welcoming others. Regardless of advisories, most travelers will make gut choices anyway. Whether it’s COVID cases or vax rates, neither consumer nor policy decisions will be driven by the numbers alone. As travelers weigh their options for summer vacations, destinations would do well to speak to their desires rather than their concerns.

Note: source for COVID-19 vaccination rates:

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