Vaccine passports - a timely idea | Sunday Observer

Vaccine passports - a timely idea

4 April, 2021

All sectors of the global economy suffered heavily as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, but there is no doubt that the biggest setback was caused to tourism and travel industries. The global travel and tourism sector suffered a loss of almost US$ 4.5 trillion in 2020 due to the impact of Covid-19. Altogether, the sector’s contribution to the global GDP plummeted to US$ 4.7 trillion in 2020 from nearly US$ 9.2 trillion the previous year.

Almost half the global population travelled in 2019, but in 2020 this fell to around one billion. In 2019, when global travel and tourism was thriving and generating one in four of all new jobs around the world, the sector contributed 334 million jobs globally. However last year, as the pandemic ripped through the heart of travel and tourism, more than 62 million jobs were lost, representing a drop of 18.5 percent, leaving just 272 million employed across the industry globally.

The fall of the tourism industry mostly affected countries that relied heavily on tourism receipts, such as Sri Lanka, Thailand and even developed countries such as Italy and Spain. In 2019, Sri Lanka earned US$ 3.5 billion from tourism even with the Easter attacks factored in, but this fell to less than US$ 1 billion in 2020, as the main airports and ports were closed from March. This was a debilitating blow to an already battered economy.

For countries such as Sri Lanka which have a few other industries that earn foreign exchange, reviving tourism even amidst the pandemic is the only option.

The main two international airports at Katunayake and Mattala are already open to charter flights and limited commercial flights. Several tour groups have already arrived in the country from countries such as Ukraine. Individual tourists and dual nationals are welcome, but they have to undergo a strict regimen of quarantine and PCR testing.

But there is one silver lining in the dark clouds hovering over the global tourism industry – vaccination. Granted, only a few rich countries have fully vaccinated more than half of their populations against Covid-19 and there are many countries in the developing world that are yet to begin their vaccination campaigns. Yet, vaccination offers a glimmer of hope for an ailing industry awaiting a resurrection.

Many countries are now contemplating letting in fully vaccinated (i.e. those who have had two shots of the vaccine) visitors to their countries, provided they are allowed to leave their countries in the first place. This is because some countries such as the UK plan to impose heavy fines on those who travel abroad without a valid reason such as a family bereavement or wedding. Such aberrations apart, the second half of 2021 should see an uptake in travel and tourism across the world.

Sri Lanka too has joined the list of countries that will allow tourists who have taken both Covid-19 inoculations (of whatever brand) to visit the country and also roam freely without additional quarantine regulations. This will also be extended to Sri Lankans based overseas who plan to visit the country. They will only be subjected to one PCR test upon arrival. This is based on studies which have confirmed that people who had taken the vaccine 14 days prior to their arrival carry a minimum risk of spreading the virus. Usual pre-approved visa procedures will apply, as the visa on arrival program has been suspended in the current context.

There will not be any minimum stay period, or any specific hotel regulations for them. However, they will have to prove that both doses of the vaccine have been taken from an authentic source in their respective countries.

Talks are also ongoing to explore the possibility of opening Sri Lanka to attract tourists from various countries under the “air bubble” concept. These are worthy initiatives that will help revive tourism in our beautiful island.

The whole concept of letting the vaccinated travel freely has led to the somewhat controversial concept of “vaccine passports”. Most international travellers, especially those who have been to Africa, would be familiar with the “Yellow Card” certificate that indicated they have been vaccinated against Yellow Fever. The vaccine passports now being talked about in the context of Covid-19 are an evolution of the Yellow Card, mostly of the digital variety.

It makes sense to store one’s vaccine and Covid-19 testing information on a smartphone app, which can easily be read by a scanner at airports or any other venue. Unlike paper certificates, they will be harder to forge.

There are several “vaccine passports” already under trial and development, including the IATA Travel Pass, IBM Digital Health Pass and the Common Pass. Different countries and airlines have signed up to these competing platforms. It will be more useful and convenient if these apps can be harmonised for the convenience of all concerned.

While vaccine passports will indeed make travel easy for the vaccinated, they do raise ethical and privacy concerns. It is estimated that much of the world will not be vaccinated at least until end 2024. Isn’t it rather unfair to deprive them of the chance to travel in the meantime? Moreover, some have raised the possibility of smartphone-based vaccine information being hacked and confidential information compromised. But there is little doubt that vaccine passports are here to stay. They offer a way out of the present quagmire and an opportunity for countries to once again open their borders with confidence. Vaccine passports might even become a permanent travel tool that can shore up confidence in the global tourism industry.