It’s getting harder to travel if you’re not vaccinated

Nov 8, 2021

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At the end of 2020 and the beginning of 2021, all the travel industry could talk about was COVID-19 vaccines. After a challenging year, hope was finally on the horizon with the arrival and distribution of vaccines.

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Getting shots into arms was key to restarting the industry, which had been battered by the virus and subsequent lockdowns worldwide.

But when talk of travel’s big return started in the spring, there was a sense that, generally speaking, vaccines would be suggested — not required — for travel. Several organizations urged against vaccination requirements, saying that testing could effectively stamp out the virus and restart the industry. They didn’t want to alienate paying customers who wanted to travel.

And when destinations began reopening for tourists in the summer, several opened to unvaccinated travelers with few limits.

In some cases, however, those policies didn’t last long.

The highly transmissible delta variant of the coronavirus worsened the situation, and its emergence also changed popular sentiment about what unvaccinated people should be permitted to do.

According to an Associated Press survey from this summer, nearly 60% of Americans believed that vaccination against COVID-19 should be required to travel by airplane.

Delta spread swiftly around the world and also forced already crippled economies that had, in some cases, just reopened to rethink their position on unvaccinated travelers. (Of course, not all countries require COVID-19 vaccines to travel, and that has been true for some destinations, such as Mexico, even before the delta variant.)

But when the delta variant gained steam in June, there was a turning point in the pandemic. Unvaccinated travelers began to face even more hurdles if they wanted to travel abroad.

The first clear indication that traveling would likely become more difficult for unvaccinated travelers was an update from the European Union.

In late August, the EU recommended that member states reimplement travel restrictions for unvaccinated U.S. visitors, which removed the U.S. from the EU’s “safe list.” That move was based on COVID-19 numbers in the country, which had reached record highs.

Countries began taking more firm stances and using more rigid language about unvaccinated travelers.

In early October, Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, announced that all passengers 12 and older must be fully vaccinated if traveling by rail or air.

“If you haven’t gotten your shots yet but want to travel this winter, let’s be clear. There will only be a few extremely narrow exceptions like a valid medical condition,” Trudeau said. “For the vast, vast majority of people, the rules are very simple to travel. You’ve got to be vaccinated.”

Canada has decided to leverage the privilege of travel like a lure, hoping to snare some people who have delayed getting vaccinated. Some data shows the incentive might have worked, as nearly 41,000 first doses were administered the day of the announcement. (Nearly 50,000 were administered on Oct. 12, the day the U.S. announced it would open its land borders for nonessential travel.)

Now even the United States, which has long said it would not have a federal mandate for vaccine passports or plans for a vaccine database and only recently began requiring large businesses to require vaccinations, has made significant updates in light of the delta variant. Specifically, there’s a new rule from the White House that makes it more difficult for unvaccinated travelers to enter the country.

Foreigners must be vaccinated to enter the U.S., but unvaccinated American citizens can still enter (since you can’t bar Americans from returning home). But these travelers face stricter requirements. The three-day testing rule for travelers flying to the U.S. was shortened to just one day for people who aren’t vaccinated.

It’s already challenging to get a COVID-19 test in some parts of the world, and adding a tight window for unvaccinated travelers will likely make their travel plans all the more difficult.

And that seems to be entirely the point.

“These are strict safety protocols that follow the science and public health to enhance the safety of Americans here at home and the safety of international air travel,” a senior administration official said on a press call on Oct. 25.

Still, the International Air Transport Association, the trade association of airlines worldwide, continues to support its position that COVID-19 vaccinations should not be mandatory even as countries impose stricter rules.

“IATA believes that the freedom to travel across borders should not be limited to only those who are able to be vaccinated,” the organization said in a fact sheet earlier this year.

IATA has said such a requirement could “discriminate” against people in locations where vaccinations aren’t plentiful and prohibit travelers who can’t or don’t want to be vaccinated for other reasons.

Bottom line

Imposing vaccination requirements is a way to keep travelers and the public safe from COVID-19. What the travel industry and governments seem to disagree on, however, is whether vaccination should be required for travel.

The delta variant’s spread has prompted many destinations to shift away from COVID-19 testing in favor of mandatory vaccinations — or a combination of the two.

So, even with the most prominent travel associations calling for no vaccination mandates, it appears they’ll be shouting into the void for now, given the ongoing pandemic and concern about future variants that could be far worse than delta. That means, even if the travel industry disagrees, COVID-19 vaccine requirements are here to stay.

Featured photo by Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto via Getty Images

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