Scattershot Covid rules place travel on uncertain path in '21

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Vaccine [Credit: PhotobyTawat/Shutterstock.com]
Tourism entities are counting on the new Covid vaccines, but the rollout process has been slower than anticipated. Photo Credit: PhotobyTawat/Shutterstock.com

2021 is supposed to be the year that a Covid-19 vaccine saves travel.

But if the first week was any indication, it could be a long and unpredictable road.

With slow and uneven rollouts of the first vaccines, more contagious forms of the virus taking hold, fresh lockdowns and more countries looking at pretravel-testing requirements and digital health passes, the rules governing travel -- at least in the near term -- promise to be as confusing as ever, if not moreso.

Last week, Canada began requiring all inbound travelers to show proof of a negative Covid-19 test in addition to its two-week quarantine requirement. The Hawaiian island of Kauai went in the other direction, replacing its 10-day mandatory quarantine with a negative-test requirement. U.S. airlines called on the Trump administration to implement pretravel testing rules for all international passengers to replace bans on travelers from high-risk countries. And Dr. Anthony Fauci, who heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told Newsweek that it is "quite possible" that Covid-19 vaccinations could become mandatory for travel to other countries.

Caribbean islands have put protocols in place for travelers. Our map and report provides details on each country's entry requirements for U.S. visitors. Updated Dec. 28.

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As in 2020, the rules of travel promise to be ever-evolving and widely varying from country to country, state to state and even city to city, making it difficult for travel companies -- particularly cruise lines and tour operators that run trips across multiple borders -- to map out their return.

Ultimately, the travel sector and the rest of the world are counting on the new vaccines that began rolling out over the last month to be the key to a widespread reopening of global travel, either through mandates, the achievement of herd immunity or both.

But the slower-than-expected early vaccine distribution efforts in the U.S. have proven that the operation "in and of itself is Herculean, to put it bluntly," said Dr. Robert Quigley, senior vice president and global medical director of the health and security services firm International SOS.

And implementation of digital health records, or vaccine passports, to ease cross-border travel also face a host of challenges.

"The efficacy of the vaccine and the constant evolution of this virus are both going to bring into question the validity of a [health] passport," Quigley said. "Suppose I get vaccinated and get a vaccine passport. But a passport, or a certificate, how valid is that going to be? Is it valid for a year? Is there going to be an expiration date put on that? Do you get the vaccine once in your life? Do you get an immune test? Because we don't know how long this immunization will work towards giving protection. Suppose next year there's a new version of Covid-19. So, there's all of these issues that complicate this subject."

Digital health records also raise questions about privacy and fraud.

"How do you maintain that your health information doesn't get into the hands of the authorities?" he added. "How do we ensure information is indeed yours, and it's not fraudulent?"

Also complicating the issue are the competing interests travel companies and tourism-dependent governments face as they weigh entry requirements with economic pressures to bring travelers back. Costa Rica, for instance, citing the need to restart its economy, last fall eliminated its initial pretravel-testing requirement, but with the caveat that it could again reverse course if cases there being rising anew. 

Rules across Europe have been as unpredictable as the virus itself. Eduardo Santander, executive director of the European Travel Commission, said he is unaware of any current EU discussions about developing uniform travel approaches for testing and vaccines but that his group "favors a digital and user-friendly solution that will facilitate the secure flow of necessary testing and vaccine information with transportation providers and border authorities allowing more seamless travel."

Indeed, Virginia Messina, managing director of the World Travel & Tourism Council, said consistency in travel policies "is key to bringing back or restoring travel confidence. It's not only a health crisis, it's a confidence crisis.

"We've been calling for consistency -- if not globally, at least regionally," she said. 

"The challenge we're up against is these ever-changing rules. Every day there are different countries closing borders, new quarantines, new measures. It's impossible to keep track, and it's really hard for a traveler to understand what the measures are wherever they are going."

While many cruise lines and tour operators hope to resume international operations this spring, they say more clarity is needed to finalize their own rules for guests.

"Proof of vaccine is something we are thinking about," said Dan Mahar, CEO of Tauck.

Pamela Hoffee, managing director of the Globus family of brands' Avalon Waterways, said they anticipate "a mix of proof of vaccination or routine testing to be part of our final program."

"As we are able to see what happens with the vaccine rollout, plus requirements of counties, we can finalize our plans accordingly."

Messina, however, cautioned against companies themselves mandating vaccines.

"One of biggest challenges we have seen is companies saying you must have a vaccine to travel, like Qantas did in early December," she said. "That is not sustainable. Firstly, the vaccines are not mandatory; it's down to the people to decide. And children under 18 are not approved, so there are the issues around children if a family is traveling."

Johanna Jainchill, Christina Jelski and Robert Silk contributed to this report. 

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