Covid-19 vaccine tourists urged to read fine print on trips overseas

A policeman on motorcycle patrols along closed entertainment and tourist businesses in Bangkok, on April 8, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI/BANGKOK (BLOOMBERG) - Travel agent associations in India and Thailand - both battling a surge in infections - have warned the public against operators advertising overseas tours to get vaccinated, saying that there can be hidden costs.

Advertisements for vaccine tours, mainly to the United States, have popped up on social media in India, despite restrictions that make international travel almost impossible.

In Thailand, too, there are an increasing number of tour packages offering the chance to join a vaccination queue abroad.

"It's not illegal to go to the US, travelling is absolutely your option," said Travel Agents Association of India president Jyoti Mayal.

"As an association, our advice is check out the credibility of the agent, check out all the documents and then move forward."

Mumbai-based Gem Tours & Travels took the names of 5,000 people interested in a three-day stay in New York for a first vaccination and another trip several weeks later for a second shot, with each journey costing about 150,000 rupees (S$2,740).

Agwani Travels India advertised a 21-day trip to New York to get the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for around US$6,100 (S$8,120), but never went ahead because India started to roll out shots, the company's owner Pradeep Sharma said.

Another operator, Dubai-based Arabian Nights Tours, is advertising "a trip to vaccination and happiness" in Russia.

Starting from US$1,780, the tour includes return air tickets from Delhi to Moscow, 24 nights accommodation in St Petersburg and the capital and two doses of the Sputnik vaccine.

While "visa support" fees are included, the cost of a visa is not. There is also the chance Russia may close its borders to arrivals from India, a factor local media quoted the tour operator as saying was not "in our hands".

In Thailand too there have been advertisements for vaccine tours to the US and Russia.

One Bangkok operator is offering trips ranging from US$2,400 to US$6,400 to San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles, with prices dependent on the time gap between doses and the brand of vaccine. Johnson & Johnson's is just one jab, and so therefore would require a shorter stay.

Another agency owner was reported as saying he had received hundreds of inquiries but 80 per cent of the people did not have a US visa.

Many of the Thai packages do not include visa expenses, air fares, meals or the cost of quarantine at either end, if applicable. Tour operators also are not responsible if travellers get sick from side effects from the vaccine, according to Thai Travel Agents Association president Suthiphong Pheunphiphop.

"The government isn't stopping any tour operators from selling such packages, however a lot of the burden and risks fall onto the traveller rather than the tour operator, so customers should weigh up if the trip is worth the risk," Mr Suthiphong said.

Demand for vaccine tours is being driven in part by unequal access to what are seen as the most effective vaccines, which have been secured by wealthier nations. That has squeezed out much of the developing world and prompted people in those places to look elsewhere, if they have the money. Both India and Thailand are seeing virulent new waves of the virus, and are lagging behind places like the US on shots, with only 7 per cent or less of their populations covered.

But there is also the question of whether some vaccine tours are even practical, given border closures and reduced flight schedules. India, for example, has suspended scheduled international commercial passenger flights until May 31, and, earlier this month, the US banned most travel from India, although the travel restriction do not apply to US citizens or permanent residents.

"Several things can go wrong," Mrs Mayal said. "Maybe you're supposed to stay for a month but you have to stay longer then who will bear that cost? And let's say you don't even get the vaccine, your money has gone down the drain and you didn't need a holiday."

Tourists visit the Taj Mahal during the death anniversary of fifth Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal, on March 11, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

Some people are going it alone, opting to fly themselves to places that offer their choice of vaccine.

One Thai social media influencer, who goes by the pseudonym Sasdha and who declined to provide his real name citing privacy concerns over some of his government-related posts, did just that. He is currently in New York with his mother, awaiting his second shot. Their trip cost around 500,000 baht (S$21,200), including business-class airfares, accommodation in the US and 14 nights state-mandated quarantine when they get back to Bangkok.

"The experience was very easy and there were no queues at the vaccination centres. We had our passports, and my mom and I took a total of five minutes to get our vaccines" at a local drugstore, he said.

Sasdha, who like his mother already had a 10-year tourist visa for the US, said he embarked on the journey because he was not confident in the Thai government's ability to contain the latest outbreak and to get the vaccine he wanted.

"We all know that Pfizer and Moderna are the best choices and everyone wants these brands," he said. Thailand is currently only offering jabs from AstraZeneca and China's Sinovac Biotech.

"We can't even choose between the two so it's like Thais are being vaccinated with their hands tied against their will," he said.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.