Given the chaotic state of India's vaccination programme, heading off to another country to get a jab and take in some sightseeing while waiting for the second dose seems like a blockbuster idea. An idea that has floated around in various forms since mid-December when countries started rolling out their immunisation programmes and seized by companies that thought they could make a quick buck. Vaccine tourism became the buzz. Except, it is more of a pipedream rather than reality.
What is vaccine tourism?
Just like medical tourism, where patients travel to another country for medical procedures, the concept of vaccine tourism first emerged in December when travel agents publicised tour packages for potential clients to get vaccinated against Covid-19. At that point, vaccine trials were on in the country and approvals were still some time away. Tour packages to the USA, UK and Russia, which had rolled out their respective vaccination programmes, were planned. For stir-crazy Indians, the concept was alluring and came at an estimated price of between Rs 1.3 lakh to Rs 6 lakh per person. But none of them really kicked off. For Indians that is.
Elsewhere in the world, some South Americans and even Canadians flew to the USA to get their jabs. In Europe, tiny San Marino is offering the Sputnik V vaccine with the mandate of a three-day stay for each dose, though the two-dose package itself costs around $61. Within the USA, people zigzagged across the country, getting jabs wherever it was easy, though that situation has eased now.
Is it legal?
Depends on who you ask. No country has a formal arrangement with India about vaccinating its citizens, so in that sense, it is not legal. But it is not illegal either. However, the bigger question is whether it is ethical. Much before it banned entry for Indians completely, Maldives announced it would open up its vaccine programme to foreigners.
"Vaccine tourism only makes sense if a country is capable of producing its own vaccines and has inoculated a majority of its citizens. In the case of Maldives, it was ironic that the vaccines were donated by India itself and it was unclear how much of the local population had been vaccinated. In any case, the plan didn't take off," said Loveleen Multani Arun of Bangalore-based Panache World, a boutique travel solutions company.
Why is it in the news now?
In mid-May, a colourful flyer started floating around on social media, announcing a trip to Russia for vaccination. Priced at Rs 1.29 lakh per person (from Delhi), it included almost a month-long trip with a stay in St Petersburg and Moscow, two doses of Sputnik vaccine, stay in star hotels and sightseeing trips. The timing seemed perfect. It came at a time when India's Coronavirus cases were peaking and booking vaccination slots was a game of luck. Besides, for people cooped up inside for almost a year and desperate to travel, it was the ideal solution. No surprise then that the rumoured flights were sold out within minutes.
But as quickly as it went viral, it crashed-landed equally quickly. News out of Russia indicated the government hadn't approved any such programme and the service provider quietly junked the plan. "I checked with my counterpart in Russia as soon as I heard of it and was told it was unlikely since the vaccine is tied to local insurance," said Arun.
"It should not even be promoted," said Nagsri Prasad Sashidhar of Mumbai-based NAGSRI, a bespoke travel company. "The situation is so fluid and countries are clamping down on travel from India. "How can you make promises you might not be able to deliver?" she asked.
Can Indians travel abroad?
Well, forget vaccination. If you are in India, you have very limited options in case you want to travel abroad. As of May 28, five countries are completely open to Indian travelers and as many as 94 are open with varying degrees of restrictions, while 121 are completely closed.
Most of them require negative Covid-19 test reports and/or proof of double vaccination. However, getting to them is the bigger problem. Not all have direct connectivity or have very limited connectivity, and the cost of travel is prohibitively expensive in many cases. Lastly, the situation is extremely fluid and things are constantly changing, so there is no saying what it will look like from day-to-day. Countries that are completely open to Indians are Albania, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Mexico and North Macedonia. Prominent among the ones with restrictions (some are severe) are Russia, Turkey, Egypt, Croatia, Cuba, Iceland, Jordan, Slovenia, South Africa, Ukraine, some South American and several African countries.
So, what about travelling for vaccination?
Well, you can't. Some countries have even put in place measures to prevent vaccine tourism. Even before travel for Indians got heavily restrictive, UK mandated that vaccines can be obtained only through the local doctor, and with multiple verifications. Though free, it was tied to the National Health Service, thereby ruling out privately paying for a jab and/or jumping the line.
The other country which currently has an abundance of vaccines and were obtaining a vaccine is relatively easy (depending on the state; each state has its own rules) is the USA. But entry is currently heavily restricted and only 3-4 categories of travellers are allowed (students, dependent spouse etc) so visiting for a vaccine is ruled out. It is possible to enter via Mexico, which is one of the handful of countries that allows Indians without many restrictions. But getting to Mexico is in itself a feat since there are no direct flights and there are heavy restrictions for Indians even on transit.
Dubai is another option, but currently, there are no flights. It is possible to charter a plane but only a certain number of passengers (at the moment between 5 and 8) but all have to belong to the same family, and comes at the steep price of approximately $44,000. Even then, only those with resident visas and diplomatic passports are allowed.
With flight bans in India in place till mid-June, uncertainty over when travel restrictions imposed by other countries on Indian travellers will be lifted, and signs that India's own vaccination programme could possibly become more robust-- vaccine tourism may soon become moot.
For the latest updates on countries that are open to India, check this.
Anita Rao Kashi is an independent journalist based in Bangalore with over 25 years of experience. She writes on a range of subjects and tweets here.