As the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine progresses, medical tourism operators eagerly await a spike in bookings. The industry was forecast to surpass $10 billion in annual revenue until the COVID-19 global pandemic struck in early 2020. Since then, both fear and government restrictions have limited travel for medical procedures. Understandably, the travel and tourism industry has high hopes for the recently launched COVID-19 vaccines. How much a coronavirus vaccine will influence medical tourism, however, depends on several factors.
Vaccination is Not A Cure-All
Travel businesses are suffering from a year-long reduction in income and the fatigue that comes with facing ongoing regulations and travel restrictions. As the desire for a return to normal mounts, it is tempting to center future strategy on the vaccine rollout. But the vaccine is not a magic pill.
The speed at which the COVID-19 vaccines were developed surpassed all expectations, but vaccine distribution is another matter. Globally, while several countries are still struggling to acquire vaccines, others are now tackling the challenges of vaccine distribution. Canada and the United States, both among the wealthiest nations worldwide, have thus far administered less than half of their delivered vaccines as provinces and states wade through the logistics of who should be vaccinated first, and how.
Assuming that vaccine programs successfully deliver to all who want them, COVID-19 will not simply be eliminated. The World Health Organization warns that it is not yet known what percentage of the population must be vaccinated in order to achieve herd immunity. Likewise, a recent Pew Research poll found that 40% of Americans say that they do not intend to take the vaccine. This percentage does appear to be declining, nonetheless, defining and achieving herd immunity is not guaranteed to come with ease.
Treating the vaccine as a green light for travel has already proven to be unrealistic. The United States serves as a great example. In the U.S., negative COVID-19 tests are required for all passengers arriving on international flights. Proof of a recent recovery from COVID-19 exempts travelers from this requirement, but proof of having received the vaccine does not. This is because, while the COVID-19 vaccine does reduce individual risk of experiencing severe symptoms, it is uncertain whether or not it prevents infection or reduces transmission to others. Unless the vaccine can be proven to inhibit the spread of the virus, it is unlikely to ease any of the current restrictions in the travel industry.
The COVID Vaccine and Travel
Vaccine requirements for travel have existed since the early 20th century and are still required in areas that are susceptible to polio, yellow fever, and malaria. Similar requirements could someday extend to the COVID-19 vaccine; however, on this issue, the travel industry is mixed.
Australia’s Qantas Airlines made headlines for their plans to require COVID-19 vaccination for all travelers. Some governments have already opened their country’s borders and waived quarantine requirements for those who are fully vaccinated. And the Global Tourism Crisis Community supports the implementation of vaccine passports. However, the World Travel and Tourism Council has labeled this practice discriminatory and recommends against it. Most likely, vaccine requirements will differ widely between air carriers, travel and transportation companies, and the countries in which they all operate.
Compared to the rest of the travel industry, however, medical tourism may be less dependent on a nation’s rate of vaccination in order to see the easing of travel restrictions. Less developed countries with limited access to the vaccine are generally the most dependent on tourism. They are therefore incentivized to invite guests back sooner than other nations might be, albeit while requiring travelers to be vaccinated to protect a local population that is not.
The COVID Vaccine and Medical Tourism
As airlines and nations grapple with vaccine rollout and travel-related mandates, medical tourism operators attempt to predict how the vaccine will affect them. A newly vaccinated public will likely feel more confident about traveling; likewise, the unvaccinated may look toward travel as a means for getting their injections as soon as possible.
Increased Travel Opportunities
Medical tourism was largely put on hold in 2020 as hospitals diverted resources to fighting the coronavirus outbreak. Many would-be travelers seeking elective surgeries were forced to postpone, and many others grew reluctant to travel for fear of contracting the virus. Now that the vaccine is available, countries with access to it have overwhelmingly prioritized healthcare workers and hospital staff as the earliest vaccine recipients. Hospitals with a high percentage of vaccinated employees may be viewed as safer destinations.
As this strategy reopens opportunities for medical tourism, a provider’s knowledge of which destinations have vaccinated their healthcare workers and hospital support staff will provide a valuable confidence boost to patients who are considering whether or not their elective surgery is safe.
Early in the pandemic, a Global Healthcare Accreditation Program arose to certify Medical Travel Programs that adhered to COVID-safety protocols. It is possible that hospitals, hotels, and governing bodies may establish similar certifications to guarantee that doctors and staff have been vaccinated. An increasing willingness of the population to receive the vaccination would help such efforts; in January 2021, an online poll of 16- to 74-year-olds across 15 of the world’s most populated countries, showed a significant willingness of individuals towards getting the vaccine as compared to a similar survey that was conducted in December 2020.
Vaccine tourism is already happening both nationally and internationally as those who live in areas with reduced vaccine access seek it elsewhere. Florida quickly became a popular destination for both domestic and foreign travelers seeking the COVID-19 vaccine, thanks to an early policy in which anyone over the age of 65 was eligible. That policy has since changed.
Medical tourism providers with a thorough understanding of when and where vaccines are available to foreigners could cash in on this short-lived but potentially lucrative market. In India, vaccine tourism packages to Russia, the U.S., and the UK were announced before it was clear if vaccines would even be available to foreigners.
In the United States, medical tourism operators have understandably been reluctant to advertise this as a service amidst ethical questions surrounding vaccine tourism. Vaccine tourism not only diverts resources from local communities but also encourages travel for those who are not yet vaccinated, which risks spreading the virus. Still, as demand for the coronavirus vaccine continues to overwhelm the supply, those with the means to travel may decide that vaccine tourism is the best choice for them.
Vaccination as a First Step
A COVID-19 vaccine is an important first step in making travel safe again, but it will not solve everything overnight. Nonetheless, it may open borders to vaccinated travelers and ease the fears of those seeking to travel for medical purposes.
Wise medical tourism providers may be better served by letting go of the hope that a vaccine will take things ‘back to normal.’ Instead, strategizing efforts should focus on how the vaccine rollout can benefit the tourism industry incrementally in the present moment.