COVID-19 vaccines and travel: The countries opening borders to vaccinated tourists

The Seychelles and Romania have reopened to visitors from anywhere in the world who have received two doses of an authorised vaccine for COVID-19.

Iceland also plans to waive quarantine rules for visitors with an international vaccine certificate (it already does so for travellers who can prove they previously had the virus). The country is due to finalise a system for Icelanders who have been fully vaccinated to obtain a COVID-19 vaccination certificate.

The announcement from the Seychelles followed the start of its vaccination roll-out: it plans to become the first country to immunise more than 70 per cent of its population over 18. "From there we will be able to declare Seychelles as being COVID safe," said President of the Republic of Seychelles, H E Wavel Ramkalawan.

International visitors are vital to the economy of the Seychelles. The contribution of travel and tourism to the Seychelles' GDP is around 65 per cent. 

Indeed, Romania has also cited economic reasons for opening up to vaccinated visitors. The country's National Committee for Emergency Situations (CNSU) said that people coming from countries or areas of high risk, or who have come into direct contact with someone who's tested positive for COVID, are exempt from quarantine measures if they are fully vaccinated. The CNSU said this decision was reached based on a downward trend in infections in Romania. It added that there is a  "need to create the necessary socio-economic conditions" to benefit the national economy.

In December, Cyprus also announced a plan to waive testing requirements for arrivals who have been vaccinated, making it the first destination to specify that immunised travellers will not need to meet other COVID-related entry rules. However, the country's ministry of health is yet to confirm if this will go ahead, as planned, in March.

Other countries have also made steps towards allowing unrestricted, or less restricted, entry to those inoculated against the virus.  European Union members are lobbying for a "vaccination passport" and Brussels has given tentative backing to the idea.Other nations, such as Israel, have firm plans to launch one.

Meanwhile, holiday firm Saga has said that its customers will need to prove they have been inoculated against the virus to travel with the company.

It should be noted that no approved COVID-19 vaccine has yet been shown to prevent transmission of the virus.

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But which countries might be among the next to re-open to immunised tourists? Based on vaccination roll-outs, economic dependence on tourism and support for vaccine passports, these could be in the running:

Greece

Tourists walk around by Acropolis Hill, in Athens, Friday, July 31, 2020. Greece cautiously reopened its tourism industry, despite tough new coronavirus restrictions that came into force this week. Most of the new restrictions are unrelated to tourism.(AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

Tourists walk around the Parthenon at the Acropolis in Athens last year. Photo: AP

EU countries should adopt a "standardised" vaccination certificate in order to boost travel, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said in a letter to European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, which was released by his office on January 12.

Mr Mitsotakis said people who have been vaccinated should be free to travel. 

"It is urgent to adopt a common understanding on how a vaccination certificate should be structured so as to be accepted in all member states," he said, calling for a "standardised certificate, which will prove that a person has been successfully vaccinated".

Greece is quite far down the worldwide leader board of vaccine roll-outs with just 1.7 doses delivered per 100 people. 

However, mainland Greece and its islands, which remained one of a limited number of quarantine-free destinations for Britons for much of last summer, rely heavily on tourism: the contribution to its GDP is around 21.5 per cent.

UAE

The United Arab Emirates is at second place in the worldwide race to immunise populations; 25.9 COVID jabs have been administered per 100 people. 

Meanwhile, the UAE has licence for the Sinopharm vaccine, which it can produce itself rather than importing it. It has begun to donate doses to other, less developed countries: 50,000 were delivered to the Seychelles.

Dubai specifically was keen to welcome back tourists in 2020, opening up in July and allowing entry with a short quarantine and negative COVID test. This has since been changed to a negative COVID test taken no more than 96 hours before departure for UK travellers. The contribution of travel and tourism to the UAE's economy is 10 per cent.  

Most recently, a UAE airline has launched a vaccine passport. In partnership with the International Air Transport Association, Emirates is one of the first airlines worldwide to trail the IATA Travel Pass, which comes in the form of a mobile app. 

The pass will allow passengers to create a digital passport to verify their pre-travel COVID test or vaccination meets the requirements of their destination. It will also be used to share test and vaccination certificates with authorities and airlines. Emirates plans to start the first phase of this trial in Dubai, from April; customers travelling to Dubai will be able to share their COVID-19 test results with the airline prior to arriving at the airport.

Israel

Israel has been praised for launching what is, to date, the world's fastest vaccination programme. Some 44.8 doses have been deployed per 100 people. This puts Israel's immunisation roll-out far ahead of that of the United Arab Emirates, which is currently second in the vaccine league table. Israel's health ministry aims to see 5.2 million of its eight million citizens vaccinated by March.

Last week, the ministry announced a "green booklet" as a form of vaccination certification. This document, effectively an immunity passport, will be given out to people who have received both doses. The country is mulling two forms of this booklet, effectively a vaccine passport, one which will be valid for the 72 hours following a negative COVID test result and another which would be permanent for those who have received the first dose of the vaccine.

The ministry website says that those in possession of this document would be "eligible for relaxed restrictions in destinations around the world". For the moment though, Israel's borders are closed. The government announced on Sunday the country's only major airport would close for at least a week, effectively sealing itself off from international travel in a bid to vaccinate more of its population before new variants of the coronavirus take hold here.

Border restrictions for visitors is not so major an economic blow as for some countries on this list: in Israel, travel and tourism's contribution to GDP is around 6 per cent. 

Spain

A woman walks outside the Royal Palace late morning, when normally it would be crowded with tourists in Madrid, Spain, Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020. The relatively high level of coronavirus transmission has prompted some European countries to demand that travelers from Spain go into quarantine upon arrival. (AP Photo/Paul White)

The Royal Palace in Madrid, normally crowded with tourists, is empty in August last year. Photo: AP

Another tourism-dependent country, Spain is among the EU members backing plans for a vaccine certificate.

According to Online newspaper El Diario, Spanish government sources said: "there must be an agreement on a mutual recognition mechanism because it is urgent to consolidate levels of mobility, which have an impact on the economy in general, not just tourism".

Last month, health minister Salvador Illa said Spain would create a vaccination registry that would track people who refuse a COVID-19 vaccine, which would create a document that could be shared with other countries in Europe. 

"What we will have is a registry, that will also be shared with our European partners … of those who have been offered it and rejected it," Illa told the broadcaster La Sexta. "The document will not be made public and it will be done with the utmost respect for the legislation on data protection."

Spain has so far delivered 2.6 vaccine doses per 100 people, putting it on par, or ahead of, most other EU countries. 

However, after its summer tourist numbers were ravaged in 2020, Spain's travel industry will be keen to find a route around the current complex testing and quarantine rules. Last week, Reyes Maroto, Spain's minister of industry, trade and tourism, said in a statement on January 22: "Our priority in 2021 is to reactivate tourism and resume safe mobility on a global scale as soon as possible. We are working to adopt a common framework of a series of planned actions to give confidence to tourists. 

"We hope that at the end of spring and especially during the summer, international travel will resume and travellers will choose Spain as their destination."

The UK is Spain's largest single visitor group, and in summer 2020 there were just three weeks when Britons could visit all of Spain without facing quarantine on return. The country garners around 15 per cent of its GDP from tourism. 

Estonia, Denmark and Poland

In October, Estonia signed an agreement with the World Health Organisation (WHO) to develop a digital immunisation certificate that would enable cross-border exchange of vaccination information. The Estonian Prime Minister Jüri Ratas said on Twitter that he had invited Finland to take part in the scheme. Estonia has, thus far, administered 1.9 jabs per 100 people.

However, it is not clear that this trial is a precursor to a vaccine passport that could reopen international travel. In a meeting on January 14, the WHO committee said: "Being vaccinated should not exempt international travellers from complying with other travel risk reduction measures."

Denmark has said it will look at the development of a vaccine certificate in order to ease restrictions on travel and freedom of movement. It has delivered 3.6 doses of vaccine per 100 people.

Poland, where travel and tourism contributes around 4.5 per cent to GDP, recently announced the introduction of vaccine passports. The country's deputy health minister Anna Goławska said Polish nationals would be able to access certification in the form of a downloadable QR code once they received the second dose of a coronavirus vaccine. The code would allow the recipient to "use the rights to which vaccinated people are entitled". Thus far, Poland has administered 1.3 doses of the vaccine per 100 people. 

Hungary

Hungary's government said it could require visitors to prove their vaccination status to gain access to the country via an app showing immunity to COVID-19. "The need for citizens to provide proof that they have gained protection against the coronavirus is increasing all over the world," a government spokesperson said. In Hungary, 1.6 doses of vaccine have been administered per 100 people. The country's foreign minister Péter Szijjártó has criticized the European Commission for "appallingly slow vaccine procedures". 

He said: "In the wake of Brussels's pledges at the end of last year and at the beginning of 2021 it was expected that the EU would start vaccination with enormous speed, and restrictions in member countries could be eased … it has not happened out of the EC's fault." Tourism contributes around 8.5 percent to Hungary's GDP.

Belgium

While Belgium has administered 1.5 doses per 100 people, the country's government said it supports a "verifiable COVID-19 vaccination certificate" that would be recognised across the EU, or even globally.

That said, the country's own regulator has advised against a vaccination database. It said that the given purpose for storing such data and how it would be shared are vague, and that authorities would hold onto the data for too long. The regulator said such a database "undoubtedly constitutes considerable interference in the right to protection of personal data." This echoed the EU's data protection chief Wojciech Wiewiórowski who in 2020 said the idea of an immunity passport was "extreme". 

The Telegraph, London

See also: Australia among world's top 10 countries worst-hit by drop in tourists

See also: Why the COVID-19 vaccine won't be like other travel vaccines

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