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2021 Travel Remains Uncertain Even With a Vaccine

I came across this fascinating and sobering article in National Geographic about the prospects of travel in 2021. Below are my favorite excerpts and takeaways. 

What do COVID-19 vaccines mean for travel in the near and short term? how will attitudes toward them speed up (or slow down) the process of getting back to travel?

Let's start with a National Geographic and Morning Consult Poll: 

After the COVID-19 pandemic is under control and stay-at-home measures have ended, how well do the following describe how you will approach travel?

I will travel more to see loved ones I did not see during the pandemic
Very well: 19%
Somewhat well: 34% 
Not very well: 15%
Not well at all: 20%
Don't know or no opinion: 13%

I will travel less because I am cautious of being exposed to other people
Very well: 23%
Somewhat well: 26% 
Not very well: 18%
Not well at all: 19%
Don't know or no opinion: 14%

I will travel more to make up for not traveling as much during the pandemic
Very well: 11%
Somewhat well: 23% 
Not very well: 21%
Not well at all: 31%
Don't know or no opinion: 14%

In December, hope began to return including the hope to restart travel as countries began approving vaccines from Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and Oxford-AstraZeneca. Sometime in 2021, when enough people are vaccinated and hopefully immune from COVID-19, we hope that global travel (and certainly less-risky domestic travel) can accelerate. The anxiety is still prevalent even as the first vaccines are given - people are still reluctant to plan future trips. The poll above highlights that only 49% said they would travel less due to concern of exposure to other people and 34% said they didn’t expect to travel more in 2021 to make up for the lack of trips in 2020.

Vaccine hesitancy is certainly real

The world needs herd immunity (thought to be achieved when 70% of the population has protective antibodies) although this is an arbitrary figure. Some reports suggest that given the more transmissible strains of COVID-19, herd immunity might only come when 90% of citizens of a country (and the world) have antibodies. Unfortunately vaccine rollout is already taking longer than expected in the US. 

It is critical to note that every country needs herd immunity for global travel to resume the way it did pre-pandemic - living in a global community means health, economy, and futures are linked. The US is not helping itself - only 47% of people who responded to the National Geographic and Morning Consult poll said they’d get a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as it was available and 27% disagreed. However, 58% said they would eventually get a vaccine.

Even with a vaccine, behavior change is far off
The COVID vaccines are better than predicted at preventing vaccinated people from getting sick. With initial hopes of a vaccine with 50-70% efficacy, early data shows Pfizer/BioNTech’s vaccine (and similarly Moderna's vaccine) is 95% effective. It remains unclear if vaccines reduce risk of spread or transmission - currently it seems as though the vaccines only reduce risk of illness.

The CDC says 50%+ of all COVID-19 infections are spread by asymptomatic people, 35% percent before the infected person feels any symptoms and 24% by people who never develop symptoms. Therefore it is certainly possible that some vaccinated people could get infected without developing symptoms and spread the virus. It remains therefore critical that travelers continue to adopt the measures that help reduce the risk of transmission—masks, good hygiene, physical distancing and not traveling if one has symptoms.

The world needs immunity for its own protection
Getting the world immunized will be challenging. According to the People’s Vaccine Alliance, rich countries secured 54% of the most promising vaccine candidates while only having 14% of the world’s population. The Alliance says that without quick action, only 10% of the populations of 67 developing countries can be vaccinated in 2021, putting citizens of popular global tourism destinations at risk. This accumulation, while an important part of funding vaccine development, risks equitable global vaccine distribution. Time will tell. Until the world has herd immunity, travel needs to be approached cautiously - Travel gives us a chance to contribute to faltering economies but contributing to disease spread undermines that potential economic boost.

Vaccine passports and tourism
As we vaccinate more people, expanding through the general population. vaccination status will begin to matter and ease of travel (with fewer restrictions) may quickly follow. Airlines, Hotels, Event venues etc. will likely begin to include vaccinations in their processes to skip testing requirements and even for entry at all. Tourist attractions, stores, and restaurants could all take similar actions. Until vaccines are readily available, COVID-19 tests will remain a necessary part of travel. 

How to prove vaccination status still needs to be figured out - fake test documents may be already a problem as is assurances that the person who took the test is the same one showing the proof. Vaccine passports are being discussed and it will be interesting which of the competing solutions becomes reality. CommonPass seems most promising - it is a collaboration between the World Economic Forum and nonprofit The Commons Project. CommonPass is a secure way to validate individuals’ COVID test and vaccination credentials and is being piloted.

Until there’s an abundance of approved and delivered vaccines, it will be difficult to get a vaccine in the near-term. Given this reality, vaccine tourism is becoming a term associated with the U.K., U.S. and Russia as possible destinations. Outstanding questions that would need to be addressed ... can you be certain of the reliability of the advertised vaccine? is the vaccine real? Has it been maintained properly? Will an associated vaccination certification be valid? Not to mention the moral considerations. 

No one is safe until everyone is safe
COVID-19 has reminded us that we live in a shared world—for all of us to be healthy and prosperous, we need to take care of and be mindful of protecting each other. Safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines mean that life, including travel, are likely to get back to normal one day. Assuming that vaccines also protect against most virus mutations as well as against spreading the virus, COVID restrictions should end once herd immunity is achieved. Hopefully it is sooner than later.

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