The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has brought life to a standstill for most people around the world, and it’s natural to want to take the first exit. However, that doesn’t make it any less of a surprise that travel agents have been inundated with enquiries from Indians who want to jet off to the U.K. as soon as possible to get the recently approved COVID-19 vaccine.
The U.K. on December 2 became the first country to approve the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine after “rigorous clinical trials and thorough analysis” by independent regulator Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). The first of its doses roll out next week.
A Mumbai-based travel agent told news agency PTI that some people have raised queries about “how and when and if” they can travel to the U.K. to get the vaccine. “I have told them it is too early to say (whether Indians can get the vaccine in the U.K.). Anyway, the first in line to get the vaccine would be the elderly and health workers in the U.K. who are most vulnerable to the coronavirus,” the agent added.
Despite there being no clarity on whether non-residents can even get their hands on a vaccine in other countries that have approved them for use, online travel company EaseMyTrip.com is planning to roll out a three-night package for those interested in traveling to the U.K. for the purpose of vaccination. “We are dealing with an airline to offer fixed price seats. We already have deals with London hotels. And we are planning to do some deal with a hospital over there so that we can generate a package for that,” co-founder and CEO Nishant Pitti explained to PTI. He said the company was waiting for more clarity from the U.K. government on the quarantine requirements for travellers who want to get vaccinated.
Amidst uncertainty about the availability of the vaccine in India, Indians who can afford it are on the lookout for other countries they can get the jab in. In November, Mumbai-based Gem Tours & Travels announced a coronavirus vaccine tourism package for rich clients who wish to travel to the U.S. The package covered Mumbai-New-York-Mumbai airfare, a three night/four day stay along with a shot of the vaccine.
“Right now, we are just taking registrations. We have received over 5,000 registrations from Mumbai alone. We will finalise details only if and when the U.S. government allows outsiders to come and get the vaccine”, Tejas Kapasi, director of Gem Tours & Travels told VICE.
Soon after they first circulated a message about the offer, the company also shared a disclaimer.
While the excitement to get vaccinated and bid the COVID monster goodbye is understandable to a certain extent, it’s also quite uninformed. No one, including the travel agencies, seems to know if getting the vaccine in another country is even going to be permitted. At this point, this feels much like a fantasy of the elite and wealthy who seem to forget that irresponsible travel behaviour contributed majorly to the initial spread of the virus in India.
Industry experts are cynical about vaccine tourism and if it is even a good idea. Pronab Sarkar, president of the Indian Association of Tour Operators, a national umbrella body comprising around 1,600 members from various segments of the tourism industry, said packages like the one by Gem Tours & Travels are uncalled for. “No recognised tour operator will come up with such packages when there are no proper permissions in place,” Sarkar told Bloomberg Quint. “We request people not to fall prey to such schemes as this is not foolproof.” He also added how this might be just a way for tour companies to collect data from potential clients and build on their customer base.
The Hindustan Times also urged Indians against being overly optimistic since Boris Johnson, the U.K. Prime Minister, has warned his own citizens of the logistical challenges involved in the vaccination process. Johnson also plans to take the vaccine on television to convince people of its safety.
However, Jyoti Mayal, president of the Travel Agents Association of India (TAAI) said that people are still “waiting and watching” to see what the vaccine is like. “Though the government has said there would be no side-effects of the vaccine, people want to watch all this before getting the shot,” Mayal said.
Follow Snigdha on Twitter.