International travel was predictably impacted as a result of covid 19 and the tourism industry suffered severe losses.
According to the UNWTO (United Nations World Tourism organization) barometer, the period from January-October 2020 witnessed a whopping 72% drop in tourist arrivals (international tourist arrivals dropped by 900 Million when compared to the January-October 2019 period). The loss in export revenues, year on year, from the tourist sector were a staggering 945 Billion USD. Tourist arrivals across regions witnessed a drop. According to the UNWTO barometer, the drop in tourism would cause a loss of 2 Trillion USD to the global economy.
Countries looking to resume international flights
During the midst of the pandemic, agreements were signed to facilitate essential travel between various countries (priority was given to workers, students or individuals who had to travel for emergency purposes).
Countries which have been successful in dealing with the pandemic have been looking to gradually resume international flights. Since October 2020, Singapore whose economy is significantly dependent upon tourism had signed agreements with certain countries to ensure that travel for important purposes was less restrictive — either the quarantine period was reduced, or in some cases was not required at all.
New Zealand will be allowing quarantine free travel from Australia for the first time from April 19. New Zealand PM, Jacinda Ardern:
‘The Trans-Tasman travel bubble represents a start of a new chapter in our COVID response and recovery, one that people have worked so hard at’
Australia has been permitting travellers from New Zealand to enter most parts of the country without quarantine, though this has not been reciprocated.
A travel bubble has also opened between Taiwan (which has reported a little over 1,000 cases and 10 deaths) and the Island of Palau (which has reported 0 deaths) where travellers need not quarantine themselves (there are a number of other restrictions though).
Vaccine Passports, Digital Pass and differing perspectives
As countries get ready to open up travel, there has been a debate with regard to using ‘vaccine passports’ (these are documents which show that travellers have been vaccinated against Covid-19 or recently tested negative for the virus).
One country which is using this experiment domestically is Israel. It has issued a document known as ‘Green Pass’ to those who have been vaccinated or if they have developed immunity. This Green Pass can be used for entry into gyms, hotels, restaurants and theatres. The UK and US too are mooting the idea of introducing such an arrangement. This idea has faced fervent opposition in both countries. In UK, opposition parties Labour, Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party (SNP) have opposed the idea of such a covid certification document. The reasons cited for opposition are concerns with regard to ‘equity, ethics and privacy’. The UK government has stated that a covid status certificate would not be introduced before June, and trials of various schemes to ensure safe opening up of the UK economy would carry on.
In the US, Republicans are opposing the idea of a vaccine passport saying that such an idea would be an attack on personal freedoms. Donald Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr urged Republicans to ‘vocally and aggressively’ stand up against vaccine passports.
If one were to look at international travel, International Airport Transport Association (IATA) has introduced a travel pass, a digital certificate, which will confirm a flyer’s COVID-19 test result and vaccination status. Singapore will be accepting travellers using this mobile digital pass from May 2021.While the pass has been tested by Singapore Airlines, 20 airlines (including Emirates and Malaysia Airlines) are in the process of testing the pass.
While one of the pitfalls of a covid status certificate or Vaccine passport is the impingement upon privacy, it has also been argued that developing countries will be at a disadvantage given the relatively slow rate of vaccination in the developing world. While remarking in the context of Africa,Dr. John Nkengasong the head of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said:
‘We are already in a situation where we don’t have vaccines, and it will be extremely unfortunate that countries impose a travel requirement of immunization certificates whereas the rest of the world has not had the chance to have access to vaccines.’
In conclusion, it is important for innovative ways to resume international travel. Safety needs to be balanced with equity, for this it is imperative that all actors engage in a constructive manner. A number of observers have suggested that vaccine passports/covid status certificates should be made optional, and that there is nothing wrong in using technology per se but it should not be thrust on anyone. The fight against the pandemic and revival of international travel are a golden opportunity for countries to reverse the increasing sense of insularity and inequity which has risen in recent years.