The global tourism industry has been the hardest hit by COVID-19, with astronomical financial losses that are foreseen to worsen in the face of continued pandemic restrictions. South Africa (and Africa) faces the challenge of being stigmatised as incapable to deal with the pandemic; placing our name on the ‘red’ and ‘black’ travel lists of many nations. Over 300,000 jobs have already been lost across the industry, while various industry bodies continue to lobby for government support and lifting of restrictions. Countries globally have slowly started opening boarders for leisure tourism and implementing measures to ease access such as alleviations from quarantine and pre-departure testing for vaccinated travellers. A new market has also emerged in the form of ‘vaccination tourism’ – travelling to countries where vaccines are available and extending it into a leisure trip. The World Health Organisation has spoken out against allocation of vaccine doses to leisure travel and the practice of jumping the queue to get vaccinated was initially frowned upon. It has however become a lucrative business proposition to a (seemingly still) price-insensitive niche market. With the slow roll-out of vaccines to the broader South African population, is it justified to start offering vaccinations to foreigners that have the means to travel and make a holiday of it?
Arguments against and in favour of vaccination tourism
Despite the world-wide progress in vaccination campaigns, there is a great discrepancy in the distribution of vaccines. While populations in mostly developing nations anxiously await their turn, others have excess due to members of the local population declining or vaccination targets already being achieved. These surpluses are not necessarily donated or redistributed to other awaiting nations; leading to ‘hoarding’ or what President Ramaphosa has titled as ‘vaccination apartheid’. While some countries only provide vaccines through the public health system, limiting it to residents, others choose to make provision for visitors. Zimbabwean President Mnangagwa reportedly stated that it is a humanitarian issue and they “cannot deny anybody the vaccine”; thereby allowing vaccination to international visitors (at a price). Some argue that vaccination tourism can contribute to ending the pandemic and use up excess vaccines before they expire. Travelers have expressed that by travelling elsewhere, they alleviate pressure on the local health system and allow those with lesser means, to get vaccinated. Some of the first tour operators in Europe to offer vaccination tourism packages similarly stated that they are stepping in where government has failed to provide.
An increasing number of governments view vaccination tourism as a means to reignite the local economy. The Maldives was among the first destinations to officially reopen for visitors and recently announced its “3V tourism” scheme: visit, vaccinate and vacation. They are set to waiver PCR tests for vaccinated visitors and have removed quarantine requirements to some of its regions where the majority of the population has been vaccinated. These decisions are set against the backdrop of a widely dispersed population and majority of tourism frontline workers already being vaccinated. Destinations in the United States have started making vaccinations available to visitors at key touch points such as Alaska’s airports and mobile vaccination sites at popular tourist sites across New York City. Yet, offering vaccines to visitors has not been stated as official policy. While tour operators in Thailand are selling vaccine tours to the US, the embassy in Bangkok has declined to comment. There are also other instances where rumours of vaccination tourism have been denied by governments or travel trade, including Dubai, Russia and Turkey. In neighbouring country Botswana, the Hospitality and Tourism Association has offered to fund vaccine roll-out to staff and their family members. Should such a move be allowed it is sure to spearhead the country’s entry back into the market and open the door to vaccination tourism.
Taking a long-term view on tourism recovery
A recent forecast by the International Air Transport Association and Tourism Economics bodes a hopeful outlook for global tourism. Passenger numbers are expected to surpass pre-COVID-19 levels in the short term due to pent-up demand or what has been referred to as ‘revenge travel’. At the same time however, the longer term sees weaker growth and losses. The key is to redesign tourism through strategies and policies conducive to growth in the post-COVID-19 landscape. In the short term, this means fast-tracking vaccination of South African citizens as the main priority – allowing the restart of both inbound and outbound travel. In the drive to reduce international travelers’ risk perceptions, government has also identified frontline tourism workers as a priority within the national vaccine roll-out programme. These efforts align with the newly launched Tourism Sector Recovery Strategy’s (TSRS) focus on re-igniting demand. While some 600 000 travelers passed through South Africa’s ports of entry/exit in March 2021, the industry does not seem to share the same excitement over these figures nor the new strategy. Though the international market is important, government promulgates domestic tourism as the focus for tourism recovery. Some industry members feel that travel behaviour of domestic tourists is fickle and that regional arrivals are limited to specific destinations and products. None of these two can match the income derived from overseas tourists. Notwithstanding these sentiments, long-term recovery and sustainability greatly depends on domestic tourism. Greater investment into domestic tourism emerged as a global trend before COVID-19 and is set to continue going forward. Research shows that South Africans are also likely to travel more domestically to assist the tourism industry recover post-COVID-19. Prioritising vaccination of South Africans is therefore not only an ethical issue but will enable speedier domestic tourism growth as the country waits for travel bans to be lifted.
Post-COVID-19 market trends
With rejuvenation of supply being another strategic focus of the TSRS, post-COVID-19 recovery calls for innovation across the industry. While the concept of sustainability is not new to tourism, it is said to stand central to post-COVID-19 recovery because of travelers’ heightened global awareness. Products should centre around “local, responsible and safe”. As stricter health protocols and social distancing are set to continue, market experts predict a global shift toward eco, adventure, outdoor and nature-based experiences. Moving beyond business-as-usual will be key and the challenge lies in shifting local demand to products that may not have been top-of-mind to large segments of the market.
"If your only goal is to survive to the other side you will likely be in trouble. Because everything is going to be affected and different. If you rely on buyers to sell your travel experiences to customers, you’re at risk. If you believe that customers will travel and spend the same way, you’re at risk. This crisis will have near-permanent fallout effects. The problem is, we don’t even know what many of those effects are yet." (Shannon Stowell, CEO, Adventure Travel Trade Association).
Vaccination tourism is prevalent and will continue while vaccine distribution remains unequal. This will however not carry on indefinitely and pursuing this ‘quick win’ may leave the destination with a tarnished reputation of being unethical. While completing vaccine roll-out programmes, efforts can be directed toward capitalising on the wider anticipated growth of health and wellness tourism. A recent tourism masters’ study on medical tourism in South Africa identified the country’s great potential to become a popular destination where tourists can receive services not offered in their country of residence; high-quality facilities; as well as privacy. It stands to benefit the local economy if the enabling environment (policy and infrastructural investment) is created through collaboration between the relevant national departments and private sector stakeholders. The COVID-19 pandemic can serve as catalyst to approach this from a strategic perspective; where medical resources are foremost used sustainably for the benefit of residents while also optimising potential to generate tourism income. Importantly, like other forms of medical tourism, vaccination tourism cannot be pursued as a niche while South Africans citizens remain waiting. In all instances ethical practices are non-negotiable and tourists should end up receiving the services that they pay for.
Vaccination tourism forms part of the long-standing ethical debate where resources are exploited at the expense of locals. In the post-COVID-19 era, there is a call for greater emphasis on sustainable and responsible practices, especially toward social inclusion and livelihood of communities. With government stating these intentions as part of the TSRS, careful consideration should be given to decisions made around this controversial niche market.
Professor Elizabeth du Preez is an associate professor in tourism management in the University of Pretoria's Department of Marketing Management. Her research interests include destination marketing, tourist behaviour, sports tourism and pro-environmental behavior.
This article first appeared on news24 on 10 June 2021.