Homeland Security Today reports that the World Health Organization (WHO) has come down firmly on the side of not requiring proof of COVID vaccination as a condition for international travel. The actual WHO guidance can be seen here. You should read it. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) promptly supported the new approach, labeled “risk-based.”
This is happening in the face of the rapidly spreading COVID Delta Variant that has quickly become the dominant form of COVID in multiple countries, including the United States. COVID Delta was first uncovered in India in early October 2020 and had spread to the UK and US by late February 2021. The good news, perhaps, is that despite COVID Delta being highly transmissible, the vaccines are working well in preventing severe illness from its infection. Despite that, the political atmosphere surrounding the response to COVID strongly suggests that the state of chaos that has afflicted the travel marketplace since the first COVID-based travel bans in early 2020 will continue for the indefinite future.
Individual countries will continue making ad hoc decisions about how to handle international travel. Uneven changes in policy and practice can be expected. The extent and nature of pre-travel testing, which forms of “proof” of vaccination may be accepted and risks of quarantines are a few of the more serious questions that must be considered in any international trip planning.
The burden on travel advisors will then also continue to be complicated and fraught with risk. At the same time, there are multiple indications that travel is going to come back strong. In that phenomenon, there is a great opportunity for travel advisors who are well prepared to meet the challenges of the “new normal.”
The most important consideration for advisors in this setting is to (1) be as certain as possible that you understand the relevant rules for each of your clients’ itineraries (2) equally important, have a system in place to immediately communicate with each client if the situation changes, and (3) in consultation with counsel, have a Terms & Conditions provision for each booking that makes clear the limits of information in the pandemic environment, and that the agency cannot guarantee that it will learn about every change in national COVID-based travel policy everywhere. Frequent but erratic changes seem almost certain at this point, and you must make arrangements to stay as current as possible and to be able to communicate with your clients. As a matter of self-preservation, you also should inform them of the practical limits on what you can do. Managing this situation is a shared responsibility.
You also want to be careful about how you express risk issues in this context. For example, IATA’s Director General is quoted this way: “As WHO notes—and as the latest UK testing data proves—international travelers are not a high-risk group in terms of COVID-19. Out of 1.65 million tests carried out on arriving international passengers in the UK since February, only 1.4% were positive for COVID-19.” That may be, but that translates to 23,100 COVID-positive travelers entering the UK since February.
But Director-General Walsh was correct in noting, “Consumers face a maze of confusing, uncoordinated and fast-changing border entry rules that discourage them from traveling, causing economic hardship across those employed in the travel and tourism sector. According to our latest passenger survey, 70% of recent travelers thought the rules were a challenge to understand.”
This is almost certainly going to be the state of play for the foreseeable, and beyond, future. The investment in systems to enable the recommended approach should be useful indefinitely