As vaccine tourism takes off in Thailand, what can jab-seeking jet-setters expect?
For Thais craving international travel while also wanting an anti-COVID-19 jab, a vaccination tour could be the answer. At least four Thai travel agencies are now arranging overseas trips featuring the much sought-after vaccine.
The trips have attracted strong interest among wealthy Thais, but authorities have issued some cautionary advice for jab-hungry jet-setters.
What is vaccine tourism?
The term was coined earlier this year and refers to tour packages that include COVID-19 vaccination. While Thailand and many other nations are struggling with limited vaccine supplies, countries such as the United States are already offering walk-in inoculation at many locations.
This has opened an opportunity for Thai tour companies, who are responding to local demand by offering vaccination trips to the US and Serbia.
But while a COVID-19 jab is the highlight, it’s not the only thing on the itinerary. Also listed in the package tours are visits to various local attractions. For example, those who choose to fly to the US for a jab can also visit the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, and Beverly Hills – home to Hollywood stars.
Needless to say, only well-off Thais will be able to afford this luxury healthcare. Vaccine tours available in Thailand start at around Bt67,500 (excluding air ticket) for a seven-day trip to the US. And only holders of a US visa can join a US vaccine tour.
The trip takes only seven days because the Johnson & Johnson vaccine available in America requires just one shot. If tourists want another vaccine brand, they will have to spend longer stateside.
Travellers who do not hold a US visa are recommended to choose Serbia instead. However, this requires a 30-day trip for the two-dose vaccine available in the European country. The cost of this package is about Bt200,000. But it includes an air ticket, a visa for Serbia and 14 days in alternative state quarantine upon their return to Thailand. Holders of a US visa do not need to apply for a Serbian visa.
Thai travel companies are also encouraging customers to form their own tour groups, promising to arrange vaccine trips for groups of two or more people. Members of smaller groups will have to pay more for the services, though.
About 5,000 Thais in the entertainment industry are reportedly joining vaccine tours because they want the jab fast.
Over the past month, several stars have tested positive for COVID-19 in an industry where close contact with crowds heightens the risk of infection. Famous comedian Arkom Preedakul, better known as Na Kom Chuanchuen, succumbed to COVID-19 on April 30 at the age of 63. He is thought to have contracted the virus from guests at a variety show a few weeks earlier.
While Thailand’s nationwide vaccination rollout is set to kick off on June 7, jabs in the first two months are reserved for people aged over 60 and those with chronic conditions. This means most Thais will likely have to wait until August to get inoculated.
Thai tourism authorities have warned travel agents not to use the term “vaccine tour” in their advertisements, even though such tour programs are allowed, and urged them to list all the details of their tours for their customers’ information, to avoid misunderstandings.
Myth or reality?
Thai organizers of vaccine trips reveal that tours to the US are underway and some Thai tourists have already received jabs. However, the situation in the US may change and there is no guarantee tourists will get inoculated.
However, one travel agency states that tourists to Serbia are guaranteed COVID-19 jabs because the life-saving shots there can be reserved in advance.
Businessman Tom Kruesopon, who has a Thai passport and a US green card, recently posted details of how he got a free Pfizer vaccine in the States after booking just one day in advance. Confirming that tourists can get free vaccination too, he said his wife – who holds a US tourist visa – has also received a shot. Tom said he was also offered a choice of brands – Pfizer or Moderna.
Caution and concerns
Though vaccine tourism is not illegal, Thai authorities have cautioned people about booking the tours.
Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Tanee Saengrat said that while some states in the US are offering free COVID-19 vaccines to non-residents, policies could change fast in line with the volatile COVID-19 situation.
“People who travel for the vaccine also risk being denied entry, even if they have a visa,” he said.
Another worry was flagged up by Suthiphong Pheunphiphop, president of the Thailand Travel Agents Association. He said that to his knowledge, COVID-19 insurance sold in Thailand does not cover vaccines given overseas. One vaccine tour programme advertised online explains that tour companies are not liable for any COVID-19 infection or side effects from a jab received overseas.
More destinations in pipeline
It is not clear which travel agency was the first to combine a vacation with a vaccine. But vaccine tours emerged in COVID-ravaged Europe around February, offering trips to Russia for jabs of the world’s first registered COVID-19 vaccine, Sputnik V.
Since then, more territories have been willing to share COVID-19 vaccines with visitors as a way of reviving their pandemic-hit economies.
Starting June 1, any tourist travelling to Alaska in the US will be able to receive a Pfizer or Moderna vaccine at airports in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau and Ketchikan. The offer is part of a multimillion-dollar marketing campaign, funded by the federal stimulus money, to attract tourists back to the state.
Maldives, which relies heavily on tourism, also plans to offer jabs to every visitor once it has inoculated its own people. More than half of its population have already received at least one dose of vaccine.
By Thai PBS World’s General Desk