The price of “taxing” unvaccinated travelers

Jul 26, 2021

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As more places reopen to allow vaccinated and unvaccinated tourists alike, we’re seeing certain destinations enforce more stringent entry requirements for unvaccinated travelers to dissuade them from entering the country — including mandatory quarantines, testing requirements and additional fees. These extra hoops for unvaccinated travelers may be a sign of what is to come in the travel industry as “taxes” become seen as the price you pay for traveling while unvaccinated.

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“If you consider a tax to be potentially non-financial, but an added process for the inconvenience, then yes, there are certain destinations and travel companies, such as certain cruise lines, that are going to impose some type of a ‘tax’ on unvaccinated travelers,” said Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst at Atmosphere Research Group, in a phone interview with TPG. “The objective is to dissuade unvaccinated travelers from traveling to these destinations or using their services without overtly saying we don’t want unvaccinated travelers here.”

Hawaii, for example, which has seen a huge boost in travel since lifting rigorous pre-travel testing requirements, still subjects unvaccinated travelers arriving from the continental U.S. to a mandatory 10-day quarantine upon arrival, unless they provide a pre-travel COVID-19 test from a state-approved testing provider and upload negative test results to the state’s Safe Travels program prior to departing. The pricing for those tests can add up. Vaccinated travelers, on the other hand, can bypass the otherwise mandatory testing requirements.

In places such as Hawaii, where tourism represents the largest private capital source for the state’s economy, the decision of whether to implement a “tax” on unvaccinated visitors is one of balance — how to simultaneously welcome back and sustain future tourism.

“States like Hawaii and international governments can and may place such a testing and logistical burden on unvaccinated passengers much worse than a tax.  It could be the difference between a trip being affordable and unaffordable,” Dr. Joe Leader,  CEO of APEX, the Airline Passenger Experience Association, said via email. “Hawaii right now is inundated with the maximum number of visitors than their tourism infrastructure can currently handle with available rooms, rental cars, and tours at daily peak maximum. If that infrastructure starts to have COVID-19 cases make it to the islands, then the support needed for pleasant Hawaiian vacations will break.”

Although vaccinated travelers are also required to upload vaccination and/or testing documentation online before traveling, the absence of a 10-day quarantine or pre-travel testing makes the process far easier and quicker than those who are unvaccinated. TPG’s senior news editor Clint Henderson detailed his “easy, breezy, beautiful” travel experience to Hawaii while vaccinated.

“For countries that are very tourism-dependent, imposing these types of ‘taxes’ on unvaccinated travelers may not be sustainable,” said Harteveldt. “While a country’s leaders may say we’re doing this to keep everybody safe and healthy, the business owners whose companies depend on tourism, the people whose livelihoods depend on tourism, may say we’d rather take a risk because without these people visiting we have no income, we have no livelihood.”

The best way to strategically implement a vaccination “tax” long-term remains for tourism-dependent countries outside of the U.S., including French Polynesia (Tahiti, Bora Bora and Moorea).

Although unvaccinated travelers are technically allowed to travel to the islands, they must possess a “compelling reason” to do so, related to health, work or family, per the Islands of Tahiti Tourism. On May 1, the islands resumed travel to welcome international vaccinated travelers, and the islands announced a new health surveillance fee just last week to “cover costs associated with Covid 19 health measures” that will start July 20. While all travelers over the age of six will pay the fee, the amount is more than double for unvaccinated travelers: $118.37 (12,000 xpf) compared to $49.32 (5 000 xpf) for vaccinated persons.

“This fee covers the processing of administrative and sanitary requests, Etis procedures, arrival tests and tracing of passengers disembarking in French Polynesia,” the Tahiti tourist board said.

“For some countries that get enough tourism, not just from the U.S. but potentially from other countries and where this policy is applied equally — in other words, they’re not applying a separate set of policies against U.S. visitors versus visitors from another country — then it may be sustainable,” said Harteveldt.

He also noted that such a “tax” would particularly benefit countries who have “reached a critical mass of having its own population being vaccinated,” or conversely, “those who have not yet received enough vaccines and so they are still in the early stages of getting their citizens vaccinated.”

Before traveling to French Polynesia, unvaccinated travelers must also apply for approval into French Polynesia online, which includes obtaining official authorization from the High-Commissioner and quarantine for 10 days in Tahiti upon arrival.

Related: French Polynesia will reopen to international travelers on May 1

Currently, France is perhaps the most restricted destination for unvaccinated passengers thanks to new COVID-19 regulations in response to the delta variant. Starting Aug.1, France will require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to do just about anything — including going to cafes, bars and shopping centers; visiting public places with more than 50 people; and using public transit and airplanes.

“We are seeing in a lot of countries, they’re saying, OK, if you’re not vaccinated, you may be subject to having to take a test either before you leave your home country and arrive in our country or on arrival, perhaps both,” said Harteveldt. “And they may say, if you’re not vaccinated, your access to certain activities, points of interest, cultural institutions, whatever it may be, businesses may be limited.”

If you are unvaccinated, you will still be permitted to enter France by showing a negative PCR test or rapid test taken within 72 hours prior to departure for France. However, entering the country will be almost all you can do until you obtain a compulsory digital health pass to participate in the aforementioned activities.

Related: Here’s how you can show proof of vaccination in France

In order to obtain the elusive digital health pass, you must show proof of full vaccination; a negative PCR test that is good for 72 hours or a negative antigen test that is good for 48 hours. This means unvaccinated travelers must find a testing center in France to complete a second test in addition to the pre-travel test. TPG senior reporter Andrew Kunsesh says “walking into a French pharmacy is the most common way to get a test.”

“There’s no easy answer here and the risk of course is beyond just the loss of revenue now because the traveler says it’s just too much hassle to go to this place,” says Harteveldt. “It could be that long term … they say you know this country clearly didn’t want me, so when it comes time for another international trip, I’m not gonna go back there and give them my money.”

Whether or not travelers can expect to see more of a widespread vaccination “tax” in an attempt to get more people vaccinated overall remains to be seen.

“In a perfect world, I’d like to see countries say we’re going to give everyone a good experience as long as they are able to meet our entry requirements of a negative COVID test but those who are vaccinated may get something better,” said Harteveldt. “There’s no easy answer here — this is a classic damned if you do damned if you don’t do.”

Related: When will international travel return? A country-by-country guide to coronavirus recovery

Featured image of SFO in San Fransisco, California by Paul Chinn/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images.

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