After more than a year of the COVID-19 pandemic, travel restrictions are lifting—especially for fully vaccinated people. But global vaccination rates vary widely and areas that are tourist hotspots may be welcoming visitors in the absence of public health measures. In this weird limbo era of the pandemic, how can we be responsible international travelers? Is there even such a thing right now?
The U.S. has made incredible progress with its vaccine rollout, with more than 67% of adults having received a dose so far and 59% fully vaccinated, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But this also puts us in a relatively unique—and uniquely privileged—position globally. For example, Reuters estimates that 20% of Mexico’s population is vaccinated. Thailand has distributed enough vaccines for 9% of its population. And in Japan, which will be home to the Tokyo Olympics this year, about 23% of the population is fully vaccinated. Some countries, such as Australia, don’t have a huge number of fully vaccinated people (about 18% of the population) but have strict rules about who can enter the country and are still requiring incoming travelers to quarantine for 14 days as a precaution.
Those who aren’t vaccinated should only travel if it’s a necessity, the CDC says. And in those circumstances, they should take other precautions to be as safe as possible, including testing before and after travel, wearing a mask while traveling, and isolating themselves for seven days upon arrival. (Keep in mind that some countries are only allowing fully vaccinated people to enter and, wherever you go, you’ll need to follow the local requirements for visitors, which may be different from country to country.)
If you’re fully vaccinated, that’s great, and you’ll likely have a lot more options available to you! But if you’re going to take your fully vaccinated self on a trip to other areas of the world, particularly areas that haven’t had the same access to the vaccines that you’ve had, experts say it benefits everyone for you to really think through that decision and to still take whatever precautions you can.
You have a responsibility to learn about how the pandemic is affecting your potential destination.
When weighing whether or not to visit a particular area, you have a responsibility to learn about the state of the pandemic there, S. Matthew Liao, D.Phil., director of the Center for Bioethics at NYU School of Global Public Health, tells SELF. “It’s great that we’re vaccinated, but we need to make sure we don’t make the situation worse elsewhere,” he says.
“The main things you want to look at are the rates of viral transmission, so the numbers of cases and hospitalizations in that area,” Lisa Maragakis, M.D., MPH, senior director of infection prevention at the Johns Hopkins Health System, tells SELF. “Vaccination rates would inform you about how well the pandemic is controlled in that country and how protected the individuals are.” Taken together, those data points can give you a good idea about the kind of environment you’ll be traveling to and whether or not it’s a higher-risk or lower-risk place to be. Dr. Maragakis recommends taking a look at the CDC’s site for information about your destination before traveling.
Keep in mind that it’s not just about the number of infections; it’s about the implications of those infections as well. Are hospitals already overwhelmed in the country you’re visiting? And if you do get sick there with COVID-19 or something else, what kinds of resources will you be taking up? “You could really be straining their health care system,” Dr. Liao says.
Is your trip really essential right now?
“We know there are essential reasons that some people will need to travel irrespective of the risks,” Dr. Maragakis says. “But for less essential or nonessential travel, you really do need to think carefully about whether or not this is the time to undertake that travel, because of the risk to yourself and others, especially countries that have not yet had the opportunity to be vaccinated.”
That’s why it’s a good idea to first think about the situation in your destination area and whether or not the purpose of your travel warrants taking the risks there. “In a low-risk area, the purpose of the visit matters less,” Dr. Liao says. “But in a high-risk area, the bar is higher and you need to have a good, strong reason to go.”
If you’re going to another country to visit your grandparents or take care of a friend while they go through medical treatment, for example, that probably ranks as a more essential reason to travel and might justify taking more risks. A beach vacation, on the other hand, might not. That’s especially true if there are alternative locations in the U.S. that could fulfill the same beachy requirements without as many sticky ethical questions, Dr. Liao says.
The economics and ethics of tourism are more complex than you might realize.
It’s true that some countries rely heavily on tourist dollars and that the governments of those countries may be in a position to invite tourists back before the country has had access to widespread vaccinations. If a country’s government has decided to prioritize tourist dollars over public health, that presents an ethical dilemma for potential travelers, Dr. Maragakis says.
On the one hand, if a higher-risk country is welcoming tourists because it needs the money, travelers can tell themselves they’re helping out a local economy. On the other hand, Dr. Liao says those travelers may unintentionally reinforce the government’s flawed thinking while putting locals at risk. “When you travel to these countries, they then are much more likely to want to give up public health measures because you’re willing to go there or trying to go there,” he says. “That could really undermine their public health efforts and make things even worse in the long-term.”
Additionally, even if you’re fully vaccinated and not likely to be a risk to unvaccinated people, your presence at a hotel, restaurant, or other hospitality hotspots could be the reason that unvaccinated people who work certain jobs put themselves at risk by interacting with each other or taking public transportation, for example. “You’re putting them in a position where you’re making the case they have to put themselves at risk for the economy,” Dr. Liao says.
In cases like these, it’s worth checking on the local climate towards international travelers—not just what the tourism board wants you to see. In fact, after tourism-heavy areas of the world got a break from travelers during the pandemic, locals in many of those places would prefer the tourists didn’t come back, at least until COVID-19 is under control there (some of them: Kyoto in Japan, Prague in the Czech Republic, Barcelona in Spain, as well as the Caribbean Islands and Hawaii). It’s on you to be respectful while visiting someone else’s home and, maybe, to consider not visiting while the pandemic is still ongoing.
Take precautions and minimize your impact while you’re there—even if you’re fully vaccinated.
Being fully vaccinated significantly reduces your risk of getting and spreading COVID-19. But we have seen that breakthrough infections and asymptomatic spread of the virus are possible. So wherever you go, you should continue to take whatever precautions you can to reduce the risk of spreading the virus. That’s especially important if you’re traveling to a more vulnerable, higher-risk area with a population that’s less likely to be vaccinated like you.
“Some countries, like Australia and New Zealand, have taken proactive approaches to stop travel into their areas until they can get the population vaccinated, and they’ve been very successful in controlling viral transmission,” Dr. Maragakis says. “But other countries may be in a similarly vulnerable position but not have those rules in place. That doesn’t mean the risk isn’t there.”
Where you can, make choices that will protect those around you. For instance, we know that engaging in outdoor activities with fewer people around (such as hiking or a picnic) will be less likely to contribute to the spread of the coronavirus than indoor high-capacity activities, like going to a concert. Staying physically distant from people you aren’t living with, washing your hands frequently, getting tested when appropriate, and wearing a mask in public can also help minimize the spread.
“You can do that because it’s the right thing to do and it’s altruistic,” Dr. Maragakis says, “but it is also in our self-interest to help bring the virus under control everywhere.” We’ve seen the emergence of dangerous coronavirus variants, she says, and we know that process is going to continue as long as the virus is being transmitted.
Recognize that your actions may have far-reaching consequences.
Of course, it’s ultimately up to each individual to decide whether or not, and how, to travel right now. But as global citizens, we also have a responsibility to do our due diligence and recognize that the choices we make for ourselves also affect those around us in sometimes subtle ways.
Rather than forcing a beach vacation in an undervaccinated area, we can focus on expanding access to the vaccines both in the U.S. and abroad. Globally, wealthier nations such as the U.S. have essentially been hoarding vaccine doses while less wealthy nations are forced to wait for the leftovers. But it’s best for everyone on the planet to have equal access to the vaccines.
“This is really a global worldwide threat to all of us,” Dr. Maragakis says. “Until it’s under control, we all need to watch out for each other—and the most effective response is a collective response.”