After more than a year of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released an official statement many of us have been longing to hear: vaccinated people can safely engage in many activities.
At press time, 11 percent of the United States population had been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and 21 percent had received at least one dose. For the inoculated, the news is good—but the temptation to take a trip is greater.
Last Friday, some 1.357 million people passed through U.S. airports, according to the Transportation Security Administration. It was the highest single-day tally since the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic in March 2020. Such activity is possibly at odds with the latest CDC guidelines, which stipulate that even fully vaccinated people should avoid travel unless necessary.
As travel rules start lifting, here’s what vaccinated visitors need to know before planning an international trip.
Vaccines protect you more than others
Travel will become safer for those who have been inoculated and have built up COVID-19 antibodies. “As a vaccinated traveler, you are almost 100 percent protected from severe disease if exposed to SARS-CoV-2,” says Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease doctor and professor of medicine at the University of California San Francisco.
Early studies show that vaccines are preventing viral transmission too, meaning vaccinated people are unlikely to spread COVID-19. But until that’s confirmed—results of several clinical trials are expected by fall—you’ll need to maintain the usual virus-transmitting precautions.
Other unknowns—how long immunity lasts after vaccination, what will happen with those dangerous variants—will continue to vex scientists and challenge populations.
Once vaccinated, the main worry for a traveler is giving COVID-19 to other people while in transit to or at a destination. “It is still important to practice precautions known to mitigate risk to you and to others: wear a mask, keep your distance, wash your hands, [choose] outdoors over indoors, and avoid crowded spaces,” says Joyce Sanchez, infectious disease doctor and medical director of the Travel Health Clinic at Froedtert and the Medical College of Wisconsin.
Where can you go?
Government travel advisories and border rules will continue to dictate choices. Research your options via the U.S. Department of State’s country pages, the CDC’s recommendations by destination, or CovidControls.co, which tracks countries by vaccination rate, entry rules, and lockdown status.
Testing is essential. Not only is proof of a negative COVID-19 test required by many international destinations, it is also required for U.S. citizens flying home from abroad. As of January 12, Americans must be tested no more than three days before flying back from outside of the country and show a negative result to the airline before boarding (or present documentation of recovery from COVID-19). You can research testing rules for other countries via CovidControls.co.
Dozens of countries are open to U.S. travelers, with an ever-shifting patchwork of requirements and regulations to visit. Some (United Kingdom, Peru) require both negative COVID tests and quarantines; others, such as Mexico and Costa Rica, have few restrictions beyond temperature screenings.
Many Caribbean destinations—including Jamaica, St. Kitts and Nevis, and Dominica—will permit U.S. travelers with a negative result from a lab-issued COVID-19 PCR test that’s no more than 72 hours old upon arrival. The Dominican Republic no longer requires U.S. visitors to show a negative COVID-19 PCR test result on arrival.
In what may be the new normal for “vaccination vacations” to come, Seychelles is now open only to travelers—Americans included—who have been fully inoculated and can show proof.
Vaccine passports are in the works for citizens of countries including Iceland, Poland, and Portugal, as are electronic travel passes from organizations like the World Economic Forum and the International Air Transport Assocition. The CDC hasn’t yet implemented such a program, which could be riddled with practical and ethical issues. Certification indicating you are vaccinated would be easy to forge, and creating a group of vaccinated people who can travel while others can’t seems elitist.
Another good choice is Rwanda, where one of the world’s swiftest COVID responses successfully protected both its citizens and its endangered mountain gorillas. This allowed the east African nation to reopen to tourism in August 2020.
Countries that managed the pandemic well are likely to continue doing so, making tourism in these places safer for everyone as borders open up. Finland, for example, has fewer than 70,000 COVID cases, the Koronavilkku contact-tracing app, and its FINENTRY program provides free testing for travelers upon arrival.
Still, there’s a catch: Places with strict COVID-19 protocols and low caseloads (New Zealand, Taiwan) may be slow to let Americans back in—and quick to reimpose rigorous preventative measures, meaning, says Sanchez, “you may run the risk of being stuck in a new lockdown if cases rise during your stay.”
Because mass vaccination efforts are currently underway, the destinations and activities you choose as a traveler can play an important role in shielding yet-to-be-vaccinated locals.
Once border rules allow Americans to visit, inadvertent virus spread will cause less damage in countries with the highest vaccination rates (these include Israel, Seychelles, and the Maldives) than in countries with weaker vaccination programs and less robust healthcare infrastructures.
In Singapore, almost all frontline transportation workers have their first dose. In Bali, Indonesia, tourism workers have vaccination priority. In Thailand, which managed the pandemic well, efforts to accelerate vaccinating residents of popular resort island Phuket aim to allow vaccinated travelers to visit quarantine-free by October.
As rules start to relax, vacations that minimize public transportation and crowds are your best choices. Save festivals and nightclubs for later; now’s the time for exploring outdoors, planning a road trip to Canada’s British Columbia, or exploring Malta’s walkable cities.
All-inclusive resorts have always aimed for worry-free vacations, so many of them have been quick to implement robust COVID protocols that benefit guests and employees. Even better are naturally isolated destinations and experiences, including parklands, private islands, and safari conservations.
How can you help protect locals?
Most travelers want to know they’re helping, not hurting, a destination’s population. Until everyone has access to vaccines, travelers need to balance how to support tourism-reliant economies while not putting their residents and healthcare systems at risk.
The pandemic increased the already-wide gap between marginalized people and those who have the privilege to travel. But, according to some experts, it’s important not to avoid destinations with COVID-jeopardized economies until their populations are vaccinated.
“The ethical economic considerations are about not isolating areas because of their inability to get the vaccine on time,” says Judy Kepher Gona, founder of Sustainable Travel & Tourism Agenda which works to catalyze sustainable tourism in Africa.
“For some developing countries, the risk of disease infection is more acceptable than the risk of industry failure and significant economic decline,” says Greg Klassen, partner at Twenty31 Consulting, which helps tourism destinations prepare for the future. He says it’s not up to citizens in developed countries to decide for those in developing countries.
In short, embrace companies that prioritize the health and safety of staff and their communities. And choose destinations that have made strong efforts to protect locals and sustain robust healthcare systems. Responsible research and planning will do far more good for everyone than free hand sanitizer.
Johanna Read is a Canadian writer specializing in responsible tourism. A former government policy executive, she’s worked on issues ranging from pandemic influenza to refugee determination. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.