New Zealand's egalitarian vaccine roll out is the best way of reaching herd immunity and fighting Covid 19, but are we prepared for Australian visitors jumping the ditch to get their jab? Vaccine tourism is an unexpected challenge of a shared drive for immunity, one which could also bring a surprise windfall for our travel-dependent economy.
The travel industry has put its hopes in the roll out of Covid 19 vaccines.
This week Norwegian Cruise Lines announced it would be relaunching ships for fully vaccinated passengers, something that would have been unthinkable just a year ago.
At the same time, Air New Zealand became one of the first airlines to trial the IATA digital vaccine passport. A way to share immunity details and vaccine history, many aviation experts see a digital health pass will soon be as essential to travel as a physical paper passport.
Yet alongside all these 'good news' stories and signs of a return to normal, we are seeing the beginning of a new trend: vaccine tourism.
Uneven distribution of vaccines and vaccinated travellers around the world has had some unexpected consequences.
This month the Maldives began advertising a policy of "vaccine on arrival" for air passengers. The appeal of a holiday on a beach resort is only sweetened by the prospect of jumping the waiting list for a jab. The Republic's tourism minister Abdulla Mausoom has been wooing overseas tourists with his 3Vs strategy, inviting tourists to "visit, vaccinate, and vacation."
Using Covid-19 vaccines to promote luxury holidays might seem perverse. There is currently a huge disparity in vaccine availability between countries. Even within the EU and countries sharing borders, the per centage of population with immunity varies wildly.
There are plenty of moneyed travellers in experiencing a delay to their national vaccine programmes. Going on holiday and getting immunised at the same time seems like solving two problems with one plane ticket.
Vaccine tourism is likely to appeal in the same way that medical tourism once did – an opportunity for those that can pay to tie a medical procedure or cosmetic surgery to an overseas trip.
However, unlike other procedures, 93 per cent of the world isn't still waiting for a new nose job.
The vaccine is expected to open up international travel and many other experiences once taken for granted. Most importantly it provides immunity against Covid 19. The stakes for vaccine tourism are much higher.
Transtasman Vaccine Tourism
Closer to home the recently opened safe-travel corridor between Australia and New Zealand could soon become a route for transtasman vaccine tourists.
Currently New Zealand's ambitious policy is to vaccinate everyone in the country "regardless of immigration status". Should Australia's rate of immunisation lag behind our own, or New Zealand reach herd immunity ahead of our neighbours, we could see a windfall of visitors arriving across the ditch.
According to one health industry expert, the bubble could bring thousands of Australian visitors.
David Taylor of online pharmacists Zoom Health says that New Zealand needs not only to be prepared to cope for vaccine tourists, but to benefit from the boost.
"In terms of access to vaccines, New Zealand and Australia are effectively operating as a domestic market," says Taylor.
It's early days. New Zealand's vaccine programme has just begun with less than five per cent of the population having received at least one dose.
However Australia is still further behind, and has five times as many vaccines to administer.
With a much larger population and some Australians could be facing a long wait for vaccination.
"At the same time this country is just a three hour flight away and in the coming weeks, will provide a vaccine free to everyone in New Zealand aged 16 and over, regardless of their visa or citizenship status."
There's clearly not only an incentive to make sure that everyone in New Zealand has fair access to the vaccine, as Taylor suggests, could also be leveraged as a "travel incentive".
The Ministry of Health says it is committed to its goal of vaccinating everyone in country, regardless of their nationality or visa status as part of reducing the risk of harm from the virus.
"The Government, through the Covid-19 Vaccine Purchasing Strategy, has secured more than enough vaccines for everyone in New Zealand and, over time, everyone in the country will have access to a COVID-19 vaccine if they would like one," said a spokesperson for the ministry.
This includes Australians in the country, for work or leisure. However, the government is currently urging visitors to try and secure vaccines at home first, before seeking a jab in New Zealand.
"The ministry encourages any Australian in New Zealand for a short period of time to look to be vaccinated in their home nation."