Americans who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 could soon turn their vaccination paperwork into a golden ticket for international getaways.
Domestic travel has begun to rebound in recent weeks, but international travel demand still remains soft. Many countries continue to impose restrictions on who is allowed to cross their borders amid the coronavirus pandemic, limiting entry to their own citizens or people performing essential business.
As of early April, internet searches for domestic flights were higher than they were at the same time in 2019, according to data from the travel app Hopper. But searches for international flights still lag behind pre-pandemic levels. Currently only about a third of searches on Hopper for flights this summer are to international locations, with the remaining two-thirds being dedicated to trips within the U.S.
“This is typically much closer to a 50/50 split in normal years,” said Adit Damodaran, an economist at Hopper.
But some countries, in an effort to re-ignite travel demand, have ushered in easier access for people who can show proof of being fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Iceland has taken this to the extreme — tourists are only allowed to visit the island country famous for its hot springs and volcanoes if they have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or can show documentation that they previously had the illness and have since recovered.
Iceland had originally planned to put the new travel rules in effect on March 26, but the country’s government subsequently delayed the policy until April 6.
Many other countries, such as Ecuador and Nepal, have opted for a different approach to vaccinated travelers. Rather than requiring they be vaccinated, people who are inoculated can instead bypass requirements that they be tested for COVID-19 in advance of their trip. So border patrols will instead request proof of vaccination rather than the results of a COVID-19 test upon entry into the country.
Which regions are primed to re-open their borders?
So far, the list of countries that has eased rules for vaccinated vacationers is a short one, but travel experts expect it will grow in the near future.
“The evidence overwhelmingly points to more countries relaxing entry requirements — by eliminating quarantine/testing rules — for fully vaccinated travelers,” said Jordan Staab, president of SmarterTravel Media, which owns the flight booking website Airfarewatchdog.com.
Multiple companies and organizations are developing “vaccine passports” that could simplify matters for international travelers. The International Air Transport Association, an airline trade group, is launching a digital Travel Pass that allows users to upload proof of vaccination or COVID test results to a mobile app. So far, 23 airlines have agreed to trial the IATA Travel Pass, including Virgin Atlantic and Singapore Airlines.
Among the regions that seems most primed to loosening the rules for vaccinated people is the Caribbean, Staab said. “The Caribbean seems to be the region that’s the most open to tourists currently, and that’s likely to continue, whether it’s by opening to all tourists or only fully vaccinated ones,” he noted. Multiple cruise lines, including Royal Caribbean and Norwegian, have announced their plans to resume sailings out of Caribbean ports with only fully-vaccinated people allowed onboard the ships.
In Europe, politicians in countries such as Portugal and Greece, whose economies rely heavily on tourism, have suggested they plan to allow vaccinated people to travel there. In these cases, though, Americans could still be barred from entry, depending on how the rules are set up and whether specific vaccines are required for entry. The vaccine produced by Moderna
for example, has only received full or emergency authorization in 41 countries, whereas the vaccines from Pfizer
are approved in some capacity by more than 100 countries.
Unvaccinated travelers are not without options though. Many countries have resumed allowing tourists to visit, even if the visitors are not yet inoculated. In these cases, travelers must generally get a negative COVID test in advance of their trip, and sometimes are subject to additional testing and a period of self-isolation upon arrival.
And some of these countries, such as Mexico, may be disinclined to require proof of vaccination for tourists, because those policies could backfire and deter some travelers, especially from the U.S.
“They’re heavily dependent on tourism, and I don’t see them mandating a vaccine to get into the country right now,” said Bruce Rosenberg, chief operating officer of HotelPlanner, a group booking website. “If anything, they’re going to say, ‘We’re more welcoming and more open.’”
U.S. Embassies, U.S. News and World Report, The Points Guy
Some parts of the world are more likely to remain closed to leisure travelers. Most of Western Europe, for instance, has maintained very strict policies regarding who may enter their borders amid broader lockdowns because of the pandemic. And many of the smaller island nations in the Pacific Ocean have maintained fully closed borders amid the pandemic, given the relative lack of medical facilities and how prone they would be to nationwide outbreaks were sick people to enter their countries.
The cost to travel overseas could rise as more places resume business
Flight-search patterns suggest that when countries add new policies that encourage people who are vaccinated to visit, they see a major uptick in interest. After Iceland reopened its borders to immunized visitors, there was a 93% jump in searches for flights, according to data from Hopper. And there was a 77% increase in searches for flights to Portugal after officials announced their intention to welcome back tourists from the U.K.
But the higher demand won’t necessarily lead to more capacity. Airlines have largely reduced the number of flights they operate amid the pandemic to cut costs, and they may be slow to resume full operations in case there’s another increase in COVID-19 cases globally that leads to a repeated slowdown in travel.
“Reduced capacity, increased demand, and a need to recoup costs will likely cause rising airfare prices later this year into next year,” Staab said. “Airlines won’t be immediately returning 100% of their pre-pandemic routes, even as demand grows, meaning demand might outweigh supply, and airlines can raise rates and still fill seats.”
Airlines could even potentially increase prices “to compensate for having to set up an infrastructure to check that passengers are vaccinated,” Staab added.
Plus, the rising cost of jet fuel will add to travelers’ expenses. Airfarewatchdog currently recommends people book their international trips by the end of May to lock in lower prices — as well as the limited-time relaxed policies for free flight changes for economy fares.
At the same time though, prices might be reduced for other travel-related costs, including hotels and activities. “Mexico and the Caribbean are still a value because they’re trying to attract customers to leave the United States,” Rosenberg said, adding that the same philosophy could apply in major European cities that are tourism hubs.