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Tourism agency warns against ‘vaccine tours’

The HCM City Tourism Department has ordered travel firms to suspend “vaccine tours” to the US due to possible hidden costs and the risk of no return flights.

Travel operators have been selling “vaccine tours” which provide only one-way tickets. There is no information about the return ticket on the ads, and other features remain unclear, according to the department.

Speaking at a recent meeting with tour operators, Nguyen Quy Phuong, director of the Tourism Department under the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, said people must be careful before booking the tours.

“The vaccine tours are costly and only offer one-way tickets, and information regarding vaccinations is vague and there is no guarantee that the customer’s needs will be met.”

“Organising such a vaccine tour is not feasible in the current situation,’’ he said.

Despite the fourth wave of the pandemic, Vietnam is considered safer than many other countries thanks to its ‘consistent and comprehensive’ strategies, according to Phuong.

Since March last year, the country has closed its borders to everyone except repatriated citizens, foreign investors and certain businesspeople. Vietnamese citizens overseas who have registered with embassies have to wait for long periods to enter Vietnam.

Rachael Chen, spokesperson for the US Embassy, said that foreign nationals who want to temporarily visit the US must show their purpose of travel and must meet all requirements and be approved for the visa for which they applied.

Eligibility for vaccination remains the jurisdiction of health services in individual US states and the US government, she said.

A resident of Thu Duc city, who wished to be unnamed, said her family of three had US visas and wanted to travel to the US to visit relatives and receive vaccinations. But she is concerned about whether there will be a return flight.

“If there is no return flight, we will be stranded there,” she said.

Nguyen Huu Y Yen, general director of Saigontourist, said: “Most travel firms find it hard to ensure the time when the tourists return home. If the guests are stranded abroad, the travel companies will be held responsible.”

Jyoti Mayal, president of the Travel Agents Association of India, said: “It’s not illegal to go to the US. Travelling is absolutely your option. As an association, our advice is check out the credibility of the agent, check out all the documents, and then move forward.”

Suthiphong Pheunphiphop, president of the Thai Travel Association, also noted that tour operators would not be responsible if the tourists experience side effects after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.

“Tourists face a lot of risks. So they need to carefully consider costs and risks,” he said.

Recently, ads for vaccine tours to the US have flooded social media in Vietnam.

According to the ads, one tour costs 45 million VND (1,950 USD) for an eight-day trip, including one-way air ticket from HCM City to US cities like New York or Los Angeles, three-star hotel, and a single dose of Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine, local media have reported.

The jabs developed by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna require a two-dose regimen with a 21-day interval, while Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine needs only one dose.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is about 66 percent effective at preventing symptomatic Covid-19, according to data released by the producer.

Experts said the total cost for the vaccine tour, including entry fees, quarantine, testing, and air tickets for the return could be up to 170 million VND (7,000 USD) per person.

Tran Van Long, director of the Vietnam Tourism Company, said the company wanted to launch ads about “vaccine tours” to learn more about the market before it asked for approval from tourism agencies to organise commercial flights for the tours.

“After the consultation with the Department of Tourism, the company agreed to wait for more time to ensure the interests of customers.”

Vu The Binh, vice chairman of the Vietnam Tourism Association, said the sale of vaccine tours to the US was not prohibited but warned that tourists returning to Vietnam will have to comply with pandemic measures under the guidance from the Ministry of Health, including the current 21-day concentrated quarantine and COVID testing.

In early May, Vietnam extended its quarantine policy from 14 to 21 days for all arrivals as the country was struggling with the fourth wave, including cases with a highly infectious variant from India.

The US has policies on COVID-19 vaccination for international visitors as part of its effort to bring back tourists.

All air passengers two-years-old and above can enter the US, including US citizens and legal permanent residents as long as they present certain documents. They must present a negative COVID-19 test taken within three days of departure, or proof of recovery from the virus within the last 90 days.

Elsewhere in the world, travel companies in Thailand are also selling vaccine tours to the US.

The US has one of the higher rates of vaccination in the world with at least 47 per cent of adults being fully inoculated as of this month, according to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Meanwhile, developing and low-income countries are struggling to secure enough vaccine doses due to a lack of supply./.