In March of 2020, as countries closed their borders to slow the spread of COVID-19, it seemed like safe travel would be on hold indefinitely. A vaccine released less than a year later provided hope, but also surfaced another major question for the travel industry: How can countries regulate international travel in a way that prevents another major outbreak?
Vaccination passports (meaning a document containing proof of vaccination that is required to travel) have become a popular suggestion for one possible solution to that question — and one with passionate opinions on both sides.
On the one hand, a vaccination passport would help limit the spread while helping to restart the global tourism industry. On the other hand, there’s the risk that such a document would exacerbate inequality among individuals and nations.
We connected with eight travel industry experts to gather the pros and cons of a vaccination passport to better understand what this would mean for you.
For: A historical and modern precedent for the framework already exists
“To understand the paths forward we need to talk about the two problems the paths forward are trying to solve,” Bryan Del Monte, the president of The Aviation Agency and a former director at the United States Department of Defense, says. “The first is did you get the vaccine? The second question is how do we know you’re telling us the truth?”
Proof of vaccination is already a part of life in the United States. Vaccination records are needed to get into public school, and the same goes for college. Proof of vaccination is also required for some travel — you have to show a yellow signed and stamped International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis card to travel to certain parts of the world, for example.
“Prior to COVID when you went to France, Germany, Canada, the Caribbean, wherever, they didn’t say, ‘Let’s see your measles and mumps vaccination, or let’s see your diphtheria and tetanus vaccination,’” Del Monte says. “Why? Because those vaccinations are widespread in the US and in many other countries, so the chance of you representing a pathological risk is pretty low even if you objected and didn’t get the shot.”
Del Monte sees a COVID-19 vaccination passport working the same way as a measles, mumps, or tetanus vaccination. In the future when more people in more destinations have been vaccinated, the need for proof will drop off.
Against: Non-vaccinated countries could have a greater risk of exposure
The worst case scenario, says the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s director of engineering Alexis Hancock, is that travel of any kind further spreads COVID-19 to populations that aren’t vaccinated.
The EFF is a nonprofit organization working to “defend civil liberties in the digital world.” In December, the organization published a story cautioning how a digital vaccination passport could be the catalyst for a “system of national digital identification that can be used to systematically collect and store our personal information.”
Hancock also cautions that the disparity could be made worse if 30 percent or so of Americans aren’t vaccinated. This could be an issue if travel-approved vaccinated people are allowed to travel yet are still exposed abroad or at home and could possibly transmit the virus to people in countries where the vaccine is still not widespread.
“The science is still being researched if vaccines are effective against spread,” Hancock says. “This argument glosses over that to justify measures to reopen the economy in ways that could harm public health.”
For: Public health is a government responsibility
Others argue that a government mandated vaccination passport falls within the government’s mandate to protect public health. During the Trump administration, much of the responsibility for safety fell on individuals and businesses. This put the liability on airlines, hotels, restaurants, and other businesses, as well as gave businesses control over tests — and control over personal data and DNA collected from those tests.
“This type of activity is an inherently governmental activity,” Del Monte says. “We’re regulating people’s movement, we’re regulating people’s liberties, we’re curtailing their access to travel, and we’re curtailing businesses’ operating and rights of property. In this country we have this requirement of due process with laws and political process that’s inherently governmental.”
Del Monte uses security as an example. It wasn’t up to football stadiums or airlines to prevent a large scale terrorist attack after 9/11, for example. Airport security changed for everyone after a would-be terrorist tried to use a shoe bomb, and the same goes for liquid limits. COVID-19 has killed more than half of a million people in the US and upended every facet of life. Measures to keep it from rapidly spreading is in a way a security measure to protect the country from a repeat of 2020.
Against: Accessibility disparity for people who are poor or can’t get vaccinated
“The assumption that a traveler can easily get the vaccine is where the problem begins,” says forensic and clinical psychologist Dr. Andrew Mendonsa. “Many minority residents simply do not trust the healthcare system due to experienced bias, institutional racism, or simple poor care. Next, there are often costs and shame associated with seeking care. Perhaps poor health, needing to get a ride, co-pays, or taking time off from a job where a person isn’t legally working and does not have paid sick time can be barriers.”
A vaccination passport would create a class of people who are free to travel and a class of people who aren’t able to cross borders.
“My concern as a healthcare professional is that if folks can’t travel legally, they will pursue unsafe travel options like crossing borders illegally or utilizing coyotes to re-enter the US,” Mendonsa says. “These options add insult to injury for the person or family — especially if their immigration status is not valid.”
The other concern when it comes to disparities between people who are rich and poor has to do with technology both at home and abroad.
“How do you create an app or a document that’s available everywhere and everyone is on the same page?” says Deb Pati, the founder of The Visa Project. Pati agrees with the concept of a vaccination passport, but is also aware of how difficult it could be to implement in an equitable way. “What about the people who don’t have access to a smartphone or technology? And finally, if it is accepted everywhere, what about travelers from countries that are really lagging behind in vaccination? Should they still be allowed to travel or not?”
For: It sets up a framework for safe travel now and for future pandemics
Navigating the changing regulations is difficult even for people immersed in the travel industry.
“It’s hard for me to keep track of varying requirements country-to-country, and it’s my job to stay on top of it,” says founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights and chief flight expert Scott Keyes. “I can’t imagine how daunting it must feel for most travelers, just hoping to be able to take a trip. Until there’s consistency about what travelers can be expected to show, like a vaccine passport app that’s accepted everywhere rather than a hodgepodge of different options, there will be a chilling effect on international travel.”
Setting up a framework now will help in the future as well.
“I suspect the US, European Union, and other countries will conclude this isn’t the last rodeo, so they will put in procedures to protect from and catch outbreaks,” Del Monte says. “Five or 10 years from now you might see an international regime with respect to public health, but that will take about a decade to hammer out.”
Against: Disparity between countries
If one thing has been clear about the early days of the international vaccine rollout, it’s that there’s a huge difference in access between wealthy and poor countries. It’s an important part of a conversation about vaccine passports, says Chizoba Anyaoha, co-founder of TravSolo.
“How would developing countries even start their vaccine program,” Anyaoha says, “after suffering greatly from the economical effects brought on by the pandemic? That is a question we need to look at and examine.”
Anyaoha adds that the lack of tourism dollars due to the pandemic has already strained economies that relied on travelers, and the strained economy will make it harder for certain countries to recover and set up a proper vaccination program for their own citizens to be protected as travel restarts.
More complications arise if you consider that countries will develop vaccination passport standards at different speeds and with different qualifications. Getting an international standard would be difficult, to say the least, due to competing priorities, and landing on specifications that every country agrees with (that Russia’s vaccine holds the same weight as China’s which is respected on an international level the same as ones developed in the US or UK, for example) would take time.
“A standard global approach to a passport would add benefit,” says Bruce Rosenberg, COO of HotelPlanner. “However, if all countries have separate rules, then the value would be decreased or fees would be even higher to obtain reciprocity of the passport between countries. Different countries will have different requirements so there would need to be a standing body to oversee the passport — maybe the WHO? I can see another issue coming up that each country may only recognize specific vaccines versus all vaccines.”
For countries with more strict requirements, it could require a higher barrier to entry for a visa. An international testing standard, rather than a vaccination passport, could be an alternative.
“I do not think any countries will benefit from a vaccine passport if it becomes mandatory,” Rosenberg says. “I would instead recommend a test pre-arrival to a destination and another test for the return home. Make the passport optional at present. This will be a boon to testing providers. I can see tests being done at airports, hotels, urgent care centers, pharmacies, and other locations.”
For: A vaccination passport encourages people to get the shot
For people who used to be regular travelers but who are now hesitant or resistant to get the shot, a required vaccination passport could be the encouragement that they need. On the flip side, if nothing changes for people who are vaccinated then some may choose to go about their lives as is.
“In this country,” Del Monte says, “people saying that if they get a shot and nothing changes, then they’re like, ‘well wait a minute, what’s the point of getting the shot if I don’t get more freedom?”
Del Monte sees President Joe Biden’s statement encouraging vaccination in order to return to normal as a sort of carrot and stick approach. A vaccination passport would be the push that people need.
Against: The added burden of fakes and efficacy
“A vaccine passport would be based on the vaccine taken by the traveler,” Rosenberg says. “The passport would have a date of effectiveness according to when the vaccine was taken. The efficacy of the vaccine needs to be part of the passport. Would ongoing antigen tests be required to continue checking on the effectiveness of the vaccines? How do different variants of COVID affect the vaccine would also need to be covered.”
There would be further complications if the need for a vaccination passport was extended to travel inside of a country.
“How would I even know someone’s card is valid? We don’t have a national ID to vote,” says owner of the Historic Smithton Inn B&B Rebecca Gallagher, “but I’m supposed to require one to stay in my B&B? There isn’t even a reliable card that will tell me if the dog someone shows up with at my property is actually a service dog as they say, not a pet.”
Countries would also need to settle on a universal way to check that a vaccination passport is legitimate. Various standards could lead to various entry lines at the border, or worse, forgeries. Like forgeries of other kinds of identification, it’s a problem, but not one that can’t be regulated.
For: Tourism is a major economic driver around the world
For many countries around the world, tourism is a major, if not the main, way that residents make money. A vaccination passport could help bring travel to places that would otherwise experience a continued and worsening economic depression.
“Once it is established scientifically that high rates of immunization also bring down infection rates and once we know that an vaccinated individual cannot or is not very likely to transmit COVID-19 a vaccine passport will be a game changer,” says Juergen Keller, CEO and co-founder of the South America tour company SouthAmerica.travel. “Tourism is an important part of GDP in many countries, and these are likely to be the countries which benefit most from vaccine passports.”
In this case, a vaccination passport would be a middle ground between complete lockdown and uninhibited travel.
“There is a huge pent-up demand for international travel, and tens of millions of people who rely on tourists to earn a living,” Keyes says. “But governments need to be confident they can allow international tourism again without compromising the health and safety of their own citizens. Vaccine passports are a stepping stone to allow that international tourism to reopen safely before we fully defeat the pandemic worldwide.”