As relieved as many tour operators have been to resume trips, the challenges those companies face from vaccine scamsters are growing, and is a huge distraction and risk for these companies trying to come back from the precipice.
As numerous destinations worldwide have reopened for tourism in recent months, one of the requirements for entry to many countries has been proof of full vaccination. While a large number of travelers have cited a desire to get back on the road as a major reason they chose to get vaccinated, others have traveled without any intention of being vaccinated.
And that’s causing a major problem for tour operators. Already facing an enormous challenge in keeping guests safe amidst the rise in Covid cases, they’re fighting to stay one step ahead of prospective guests who might resort to deception in order to book a trip. Despite largely mandating customers to be fully vaccinated before going on any of their offerings, the issue of verifying status has emerged a headache for several companies — especially as international requirements often vary.
“We do not have any way of verifying if the (U.S. Centers for Disease Control vaccination) card is fraudulent,” said Melissa DaSilva, the U.S. president of Trafalgar Tours, which has required all adult guests to be fully vaccinated against Covid from September 1.
Travelers who choose to travel with a doctored vaccination card run the risk of being hit with a heavy penalty — such as five years in prison or a $5,000 fine, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, for misrepresenting the official seal of agencies such as the CDC. Using fake vaccination cards also results a penalty in several states.
As for Trafalgar, the company’s vaccine policy relies heavily on taking customers’ words about vaccination — it requires guests to sign a travel declaration stating, among other things, they are vaccinated, have not had recent contact with anyone with Covid or have tested positive within 14 days of the trip. Upon arriving on the trip, customers hand their CDC vaccination card to a staff member who looks at it and records it was checked. “But no other information is kept,” DaSilva said.
While the Globus family of brands — the parent company of four tour operators — largely takes the same steps as Trafalgar, Chief Marketing Officer Steve Born added that its health and safety checkpoint follows those already required and conducted by airlines and destination arrival authorities. But the proof of vaccination requirements can differ enormously among countries.
Jeff Adams can attest to that. “The contrast between countries, cities, hotels and races has been dramatic over my travels over the last six years,” said the president of Massachusetts-based tour operator Marathon Tours & Travel.
He cited an example of traveling to Germany as the gate agents at numerous U.S. airports were adamant about reviewing vaccine cards and electronic registration requirements, especially for any countries they might be traveling through. Adams said one traveler from the U.S. was denied access to a flight because the gate agent from the airline — a European airline — didn’t realize that Johnson & Johnson was on a list of approved vaccines as it goes by a different name in Europe, Janssen.
And the Covid-related issues don’t stop once after getting to Europe. Adams added that clients participating in the London Marathon could have possibly undergone five Covid tests during their race, including one to enter the pre-race Expo and a random one before taking part in the event. “There’s a number of layers of travel protocols,” he said about arranging numerous trips for clients throughout Europe centered on races. “It’s like learning a new language.”
While many people have turned to apps to display their vaccination statuses, “there isn’t a good one size fits all app,” Adams said. Thus he recommends that his clients have photographic backups on devices such as phone and iPads just in case their vaccination card is misplaced or stolen.
Likewise, Adams has to prepare well in advance certain aspects of numerous to ensure his company is not running afoul of any regulations, especially as he said there’s a hierarchy of who is making requirements. “Is the country requiring this? Yes or No?” he said. “Is this race requiring this? Yes or No?”
He provided an example of having to provide once the hotel a master list of guests for events such a pre-race dinner or a post-race party. Most importantly, he had to include his clients’ vaccination statuses and what vaccine they took, an experience he found stressful.
“For us to provide that information, it was kind of redundant,” he said.
But many tour operators will be gladly put up with any such nuisances. “For our clients, it was not an issue,” Adams said. “They were happy to be traveling again.”