Coronavirus: Kiwis warned against going on 'vaccine holidays'

By Nick Truebridge for RNZ

New Zealanders are being warned not to sign up for vaccine vacations, as countries with ample supplies start to advertise themselves as destinations to overseas markets.

Guam, the Maldives and San Marino, as well as some US states, are opening to tourists looking to beat vaccination waiting times back home.

But questions to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) about the rise of vaccine vacations have been met with a stern warning not to travel.

Carl Gutierrez is the chief executive of the Guam Visitors Bureau and a former governor of the United States territory.

He is one of the masterminds behind Air Vaccine and Vacation - Airvnv - a start-up operation for the COVID-19 era that's just launched in the tiny western Pacific island.

"It's an opportunity because we're getting now outreach from Bangkok, Thailand, the Philippines, Taiwan, Japan, Korea and other places like Vietnam as well," he told Checkpoint.

Guam offers holidaymakers three vaccines - Pfizer, Moderna and the single-shot Johnson & Johnson jab.

"We already have guests here from Japan, who are covering the Olympics for the US CBS network, and they decided to come here and get it done and take the Johnson & Johnson so that they can return to Japan to cover the Olympics as quickly as possible," Gutierrez said.

"So it's working."

But, as of right now, New Zealanders cannot book an Airvnv in Guam.

Unlike the Maldives - which is open to all travellers who produce a negative COVID-19 test result - it's only letting US expats book vaccination holidays.

But it may not be long before Kiwis and others can get in on the action.

"Our protocols are softening up a little bit," Gutierrez said.

"So, it would make sense now to invite the Americans here and then, eventually, the non-US citizens to come and get their vaccinations here because of the slow rollout of the vaccination process in their countries," he said.

The New Zealand Government this week said it would be at least the end of July before the COVID-19 vaccine is rolled out to the general population.

On Thursday, COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins walked that back slightly.

"Our goal has been to get a secure delivery schedule with Pfizer for July onwards, which we're hoping we'll be able to lock in in the next week or so," he said.

"Then we'll be able to provide more detail to New Zealanders about what to expect from July onwards."

Opportunity for dual passport holders

So, if there is a delay, will Kiwis look to head overseas?

In the United States, CNN has reported on vaccination holidays, while the tiny microstate of San Marino - landlocked by Italy - is offering visitors the Russian-made Sputnik vaccine.

Checkpoint asked House of Travel chief operating officer Brent Thomas for his thoughts on potential uptake.

"What we do know is that there are certain countries around the world who are saying, 'come to us and we'll vaccinate you and have a holiday there'," Thomas said.

"There's potentially opportunities for people who have got dual-citizenship where they could go back to say a place like the United Kingdom, which is progressing so well with their vaccination programme, and potentially they could get vaccinated there."

But Thomas did not see vaccination holidays becoming a trend until there is a softening of New Zealand's MIQ requirements.

"We need to get clarity from the New Zealand Government on when is it going to be possible for people to come to New Zealand once they are vaccinated," he said.

"And part of the problem with that will be we need to get the rollout done of the vaccination programme here as quickly as possible, so we get to herd immunity in New Zealand."

Checkpoint asked MFAT for its views on Kiwis making future Airvnv bookings in the likes of Guam and the Maldives.

It responded immediately with advice not to travel overseas due to the pandemic, associated health risks and widespread travel restrictions.

Asked if it was aware of any Kiwis travelling to vaccination holiday hotspots, MFAT told Checkpoint it did not track the reasons why people decide to travel overseas.