Is it responsible to travel to places with low vaccination rates?

Checking vaccination stats and assessing the risks is vital before booking your next trip to ensure you’re not putting people in harm’s way.

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Victoria Falls, Matabeleland North, Zimbabwe Photo © Peter Unger / Getty Images

If you’ve dared dream where you’ll go next – or are already back into the swing of travel – the lure of foreign lands is hard to resist. For many of us, the joy of travel lies in tasting unfamiliar foods, gazing at views, and exploring cultures unlike our own – and it’s all waiting beyond our own country’s borders.

One in four pre-pandemic jobs were tied to tourism, the World Travel and Tourism Council tells us, so it makes sense that the countries we want to visit want us to visit, too … doesn’t it?

Sure, unless our visit ends up doing a destination more harm than good. Now is the time to ask what impact we might have when we travel, and whether it’s fair to travel to countries where the majority of the population hasn’t yet had the chance to be vaccinated.

The problem with vaccine inequity

If you’ve been vaccinated, you’re one of the lucky ones. You live in a country where COVID-19 vaccines are easily accessible. As of 5 October 2021, 6.2 billion doses have been administered around the world, and 26 million more are being jabbed into arms each day.

While 45 per cent of the global population has received at least one dose, just two per cent of people in low-income countries can say the same.

That number falls again for the fully vaccinated. According to Our World in Data, an organization building an international vaccination dataset, vaccine inequity is undeniable – the numbers speak for themselves.

In Tanzania, for example, just 1 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated, with Kenya not far behind at 1.6 per cent. In Jamaica and Bangladesh, around 10 per cent of people have received the two vaccinations they need to be protected from serious illness or death caused by COVID-19.

The picture looks very different in the world’s wealthiest countries, which are leading the charge in the percentage of people fully vaccinated: Portugal (85 per cent), UAE (83), Spain (78), Singapore (77), Denmark (75), Belgium (72), Canada (70). The UK, USA and Australia are sitting at 66, 55 and 43 per cent, respectively.

Improving vaccine rates

As wealthy countries reach high vaccination rates, policies inevitably shift from ‘zero-tolerance’ to ‘living with’ COVID-19. International borders open up, quarantine measures relax, and travel lovers fed up with staying home pack their bags and head for the nearest airport.

Low vaccine supplies (thanks partly to wealthy countries grabbing more than their fair share early on), manufacture and distribution hold-ups, and the cost and logistics of acquiring vaccines and administering them are all contributing to vaccine inequity.

September’s Global COVID-19 Summit was a collective step forward, as world leaders committed to accelerating access to vaccines, diagnostics and treatments to meet the World Health Organization’s target: that 70 per cent of all people in all countries be vaccinated by mid-2022.

NGOs are doing what they can too. UNICEF’s Give the World a Shot fundraising campaign aims to deliver 2 billion COVID-19 vaccines, 5.5 million treatments and 5.6 million test kits to countries in need; the WHO Foundation’s Go Give One is raising money to enable low- and middle-income economies to access donor-funded doses of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines (some low-income countries have been resorting to low-efficacy vaccines because it’s all they’ve been able to get their hands on).

Protecting local communities

Supporting initiatives such as these is one way you can help, but you can also play a part in not making things worse. That’s one reason ethical tour operator Intrepid Travel requires all its travelers and tour leaders to be fully vaccinated.

“We’re taking this step because it’s important to us that we make sure the communities we visit, our leaders and our travelers are safe and that we minimize, as much as possible, anyone’s chances of traveling with and passing on COVID-19,” says Intrepid Travel CEO James Thornton. “We need to keep everyone safe. It’s as simple as that.”

Tourism-reliant countries who’ve been doing it tough have little choice but to welcome back travelers, no matter how few of their own people have been vaccinated.

It’s up to us to monitor and choose travel destinations carefully – for their sake and yours – and to do what we can to minimize mutual risk while we’re there.

“The bottom line is that regardless of how ‘pent up’ we feel to travel, it’s still a huge privilege to do so – we must be respectful of places and people and think about our impact before we even begin planning a trip,” says Skift global tourism reporter Lebawit Lily Girma.

The best way to protect local communities is simple, Girma says. “It’s unethical to travel to a low-vaccinated country and expose other people who haven't had the privilege of having access to vaccines." Girma goes even further by suggesting travelers should wait until the vaccination rate in the region or local community you’re interested in has reached at least 70 per cent.

How can you minimize the risk to others

Traveling for fun is one thing but traveling to be with family members from whom you’ve been separated is quite another. And the risks to others when you’re spending time with loved ones at their home is dramatically different to those posed during a sightseeing vacation or resort stay where you’re putting locals and tourism workers in jeopardy just by being there.

Although you can’t completely control the risk to yourself by traveling to a country of low vaccination/high infection rates, you can minimize your risk to them. Remember that even if you are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, you can still catch and pass on the virus.

      • Get vaccinated before you travel
      • Avoid crowded indoor settings with inadequate ventilation in favor of outdoor activities and dining venues
      • Wear a mask in areas of high local transmission rates. Mask wearing on public transport and other crowded places makes good sense wherever you are
      • Don't travel if you feel unwell or have any symptoms of COVID-19
      • Get a negative COVID-19 test before traveling.

Infectious disease epidemiologist Dr Saskia Popescu discourages travel if you have recently been exposed to a COVID-positive case or aren’t feeling well, no matter how desperate you are to travel or reunite with your family. “We need to be good stewards of public health,” Popescu says. 

If you travel anyway, your symptoms escalate and you need medical care while you’re away, burdening the local healthcare system does local people no favours. 

Getting tested just before your departure may be inconvenient – especially if you test positive and need to delay your trip – but it’s the right thing to do.

If you’re not feeling well once you reach a low-vaccination destination but have only mild symptoms, self-isolating until you feel better, or test negative is the best way to protect the surrounding community.

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16 Comments

  • Marvin Gardens said

    Funny how the article doesn't list China as one of the wealthiest countries with a vaccination rate of over 75%, which is much higher than the US.

  • Henry said

    What a silly premise for an article. You're actually safer traveling to countries with low vaccination rates, strange as that may seem to some who have not been keeping in touch with reality. The vaccine has the presumably unintended consequence of both accelerating transmission and mutation of the virus. The best vaccine is the virus itself, with recent studies demonstrating that natural immunity is over 20x stronger than vaccine induced immunity, in part due to the vaccine only sensitizing your immune system to one of the viral proteins rather than all 28, which in turn enables single protein mutations to easily escape vaccine effectiveness, which those of us with natural recovery based immunity simply brush off.

  • Taru Möller said

    Hello travellers like me and, of course, other human beings as well.
    I could not have the vaccine because all of my allergies. But am going to live in Cambodia, where stayed before.
    Have read all the information that I can get about travelling without the security of the vaccination. I am sure by using the throw away, after one use, face masks and gloves, will prove to be enough. And also the normal distance between people. Don't be afraid to travel, just use the common sense, and everything is working out just fine.
    Happy travels
    Legend, from Finland

  • Anna said

    The Intrepid Travel CEO says their travellers have to be vaccinated "to keep the communities they visit safe". But this does not seem to be based on what research is showing:

    https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2021.09.28.21264262v2: "No Significant Difference in Viral Load Between Vaccinated and Unvaccinated, Asymptomatic and Symptomatic Groups When Infected with SARS-CoV-2 Delta Variant"
    (still to be peer reviewed but this is not the only research along these lines)

    And this:
    https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10654-021-00808-7
    Here's a quote from this research (and note that the lead researcher is at Harvard):
    "In fact, the trend line suggests a marginally positive association such that countries with higher percentage of population fully vaccinated have higher COVID-19 cases per 1 million people.”
    In other words, there are more COVID-19 infections in countries with higher vaccination rates.

    Anyway, the governments make the decisions on travel. But I wonder what workers in the tourism industry in countries with low vaccination rates might think of your question. I live in a developing country (South Africa) that sees tourism as a hope for an ailing economy,

    No tourists = no income for those who rely on tourism for a living.

    If you polled some unemployed youths who might get a temporary grant of US$23.70 a month at best, and who are at a low risk of death from the COVID-19 virus, it would be interesting to hear what they consider the bigger risk.

  • Jeanette said

    As one in four whose livelihood relies on tourism, I appreciate this article. Luckily in Italy, where I live we are nearly at 90% fully vaccinated and we are much freer than we were to travel safely and confidently. Yes , there have been break through infections, but luckily the vaccines did their job.
    Since many of the views expressed here seem to be from a self-centered point of view, consider this: Would you want to experience the consequences of a break through infection in a country which is ill prepared should you be one of the few to experience serious infection? Then try to stretch your empathy a bit to people who do not have access to the vaccine much less the faciilitie to help them survive should they contract the disease...

  • Jeanette said

    As one in four whose livelihood relies on tourism, I appreciate this article. Luckily in Italy, where I live we are nearly at 90% fully vaccinated and we are much freer than we were to travel safely and confidently. Yes , there have been break through infections, but luckily the vaccines did their job.
    Since many of the views expressed here seem to be from a self-centered point of view, consider this: Would you want to experience the consequences of a break through infection in a country which is ill prepared should you be one of the few to experience serious infection? Then try to stretch your empathy a bit to people who do not have access to the vaccine much less the faciilitie to help them survive should they contract the disease...

  • John said

    It is incumbent upon us to travel where and when we can in order to do our bit for these poor battered economies.

    In the UK, we have destroyed businesses, ran up £400bn of additional debt and locked up 70 million perfectly healthy people to varying degrees for 18 months.

    And for what?

    To try and buy a few extra months for 0.2% of the population who are dying of the lethal Rona aged 82.3 (on average).

    500 people missing out on work, school, university, income for 18 months. A combined total of 750 man (and woman) years lost forever to try and buy one 'lucky' pensioner a few extra months (on average).

    It is absolutely insane. And we should not be imposing this on Tanzania or Zimbabwe or anybody else and kidding on that we're doing it for their own good.

    Just because we, in the West, seem to have lost all sense of proportion, doesn't mean that the rest of the world has.

  • Garuivar said

    With Covid AND global warming, climate change, it never is responsible to go to far distant places without staying there and finding out more, for at least a year.
    Tourism, and nomadism, is the beginning of permanent migration to any prefered place in the world, which you think will be better than you had before. Trouble is that with frequent travelling (by air) you make the planet itself, much worse.

  • Maria Rambanapasi Stoutjesdijk said

    I have been to Victoria falls. It is one of the most beautiful places in the world

  • Johnboy said

    Think of Covid like this, in Europe at least, as a Warning. The UK has just broken a series of treaties with the rest of Europe. 99% of scientists now acknowledge global warming and climate change of the planet.
    The UN, as a kind of world government, is the prime mover of thought in all three... Cov, GW and CC.
    They are all three political judgements, and not necessarily unrelated.
    The fact of renewal of historical and very serious diferences between European nation states, might well cause you to disregard Covid, as poor decisions by the world power of the UN/ WHO which may well be colored by by the other two causes above for deep concern to the world traveller.
    These ideas are complex. Covid is trivial but a warning.

  • Carole said

    Your figures for vaccination in Australia are way out of date. As of Oct 25th 73.4% were fully vaccinated and 86.8% have had one dose.

  • Kam said

    Shame on you Intrepid Travel for discriminating against those of us who won’t get the jab for medical reasons. Will never take a trip with you again.
    And thank you for each and every comment that supports each of us to have a choice in deciding what’s best for our own health.

  • b said

    spoiler alert, you CAN STILL get covid AND transmit it even if vxed sooooo how about you stick to your regular programming instead of joining the pharmaceutical push bandwagon. Where there is RISK there must be a choice so please respect people decision to do what is best for them and use logic when choosing to travel instead of fear mongering for a change.

  • Larry Givner said

    Thanks

  • vladimir said

    We should be doing all that globalists and their puppets $oro$ and demonrats and fakie and media orders us that we must not to, We should be taking our freedom back .

  • Karis | Don't Dream, Just Travel said

    As someone who lives part-time in Kenya and part-time in Germany, I'd like to add that although vaccination rates are low in Kenya, vaccines are not impossible to get and most are going bad on the shelves because people are suspicious of the government, where the vaccine is coming from, and what it might do to them. Education on the vaccines is not widely available, too. Vaccines are available in Kenya, but years of mistrust of the government and authorities have slowed any progress that could be made in getting more people vaccinated. Plus, there is always exploitation going on, and doctors illegally charging for vaccines although they are free. Living in Germany where vaccines are also available to everyone and the vaccine rates are higher is such a contrast to Kenya and its neighboring countries.

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