OPINION: Vaccine on arrival: A new form of health tourism SA will miss out on


The outbreak of COVID-19 across the world brought the travel-intensive tourism industry to a complete standstill. The pre-pandemic period was characterised by too many tourists, leading to fears of over-tourism in many destinations. The outbreak of the pandemic changed this and our lives forever.

The declaration of lockdowns reduced movement and had a bad impact on tourism consumption - a service that must be simultaneously produced and consumed. Members of the tourism value chain could therefore not produce services and were unable to earn an income from sales. Tourism recovery was the top agenda in the industry as sales declined by nearly 80% due to the pandemic.

Domestic tourism was gauged as a panacea for tourism recovery when international travel was not permitted. It remained a necessary but insufficient condition for tourism recovery as international tourists are important for a robust industry. In the context of South Africa, there were not sufficient domestic tourists to match the supply available on the tourism value chain.

The pace of vaccination in South Africa has been slow because of sheer incompetence of the state. The private sector, which includes the medical aids, is ready and willing to procure the vaccines for their members, but the state refuses. Zimbabwe - which has a weaker public healthcare sector when compared to South Africa - has vaccinated more citizens.

The slow pace of COVID-19 vaccination has a negative impact on the attractiveness of South Africa as a tourism destination. Countries that have faster vaccination programmes will be first to recover their tourism sectors to pre-COVID-19 times.

Considering that tourism is the second largest employer in the country, and is second only to mining in terms of GDP numbers at 2.8%, tourism recovery is fundamental for the recovery of the economy of South Africa. Conversations around the world include the possibility of a vaccine passport and it's Western countries that are dominating this discussion.

Tourism consumption is dominated by Western countries and African countries attract less than 10% of global tourism receipts, whilst tourism is disproportionally important for African countries. African countries would attract fewer tourists than before if their vaccination programmes lag behind the great restart. Several countries that are finalising whole population vaccination programmes have jumped on the vaccine tourism bandwagon, offering vaccines to tourists.

Vaccine tourism is a new form of heath tourism - the most popular forms of which include organ transplants, plastic surgery, dental care, fertility treatments and operations such as hip replacements where there are long waiting periods in many countries. Health tourism is big business and the demand for COVID-19 vaccines is huge globally, so it was only a matter of time before vaccine tourism emerged around the pandemic.

Destinations are seeking to combine tourism consumption with the added benefit of getting inoculated, and this is boosting this new form of special interest tourism. Vaccine tourism destinations range from Florida in the US, to Cuba, the United Arab Emirates and Switzerland.

Maldives, a state in South Asia which is a renowned sea and sand destination, is offering holidaymakers a vaccine on arrival. As an island nation, it is highly dependent on tourism, and the vaccination programme is a means of achieving of tourism recovery, as more than half of the population in Maldives has already been vaccinated. Once the entire population is vaccinated, the island would attract vaccine tourists on a date yet to be confirmed.

The '3V' strategy encourages tourists to 'visit, vaccinate, and vacation'. South Africans can travel to the Maldives via a 16-hour one-stop flight on Qatar Airways, and return flights range around R16,000 per person. South Africans are being groomed to visit the Maldives to get the vaccination, and the snail's pace of the vaccination programme in South Africa would benefit vaccine tourism destinations.

South Africa is already a leader in health tourism, based on a world-class private healthcare system, and could have been a destination for vaccine tourism if we had a more responsive state. Countries that are able to inoculate both citizens and tourists would build faster tourism resilience and recovery.

And while vaccination tourism can contribute towards easing the COVID-19 pandemic, it does also present ethical conundrums. Those with the financial means to travel and get vaccinated will benefit from vaccine tourism schemes, whilst the majority of the world’s population wait for the lifesaving jab. The potential for South Africa to become a vaccine tourism destination remains a dream deferred.

Dr Unathi Sonwabile Henama teaches tourism at the Tshwane University of Technology. You can follow him on Twitter on @UnathiHenama.

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