New Delhi: With the United Kingdom government approving the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine, travel agencies in India have already started planning ‘vaccine tourism’ packages for Indians who want to travel to England to take the shots.
Travel agencies such as Zenith Holidays in Kolkata, Gem Tours & Travels in Mumbai and Chariot World Tours in Bengaluru confirmed that they are formulating such tour packages, which could even include the vaccine cost.
Travel agents have also been receiving many enquiries from Indians about travelling to the UK as soon as possible for the purpose, PTI reported last week.
But there are words of caution from even within the industry.
“Unless we hear from the Indian or the UK government, nobody should be offering tours like these,” Jyoti Mayal, president, Travel Agents Association of India (TAAI), told ThePrint. “Also, travel agents can get dragged into legal suits if they are making offers that are not authentic or yet to be approved by local governments.”
The mass vaccination drive in the UK is likely to begin as early as this week with the elderly, especially those with comorbidities, on the priority list for the first phase. Then, the vaccine will be administered to the other risk groups from January to April. The vaccine will be administered in hospitals, mass vaccination centres and by general practitioners and pharmacists. It is a two-dose vaccine.
India is currently allowing international flights via ‘air bubble arrangements’ with only 22 countries, including the UK. An individual has to undergo 14-day self isolation upon arrival in the UK but can opt for a Covid test after five days, the results of which normally come back within 24 to 48 hours. This means people can stop self-isolating after six days if they test negative.
However, it is not even known yet if foreign tourists would be eligible for the vaccines. ThePrint has sent an email to the UK High Commission in India for a comment on the timeline but is yet to receive a response.
‘Vaccine tours’ in the offing
The tour operators are confident that they can arrange for the vaccine.
Atmanand Shanbhag, chairman of Chariot World Tours, claimed to have “strong contacts” in the UK who have told him that the vaccine will be made available for foreigners by mid-March in 2021.
Chariot World Tours is currently formulating a 4-5 night tour package from Bengaluru to London priced at approximately Rs 1.29 lakh per head. To be announced soon, the package will include flight tickets, accommodation, a small cultural tour around London and assistance to a health centre for a vaccine shot.
“We want to include the vaccine in the tour cost. However, UK government authorities are yet to announce how vaccine distribution will be carried out,” Shanbhag. “It is mainly concerned with UK citizens for now.”
With the two-dose vaccine set to be administered three weeks apart, Shanbhag said clients can choose to stay in London or return to India and revisit the country for the second dose using the same package.
Travel agencies eye vaccine developments in the US, Russia
Nimesh Shah, business development specialist at Gem Tours & Travels, said the company expects the US to approve the use of a vaccine by the second week of December.
According to reports, the US Food and Drug Administration plans to meet on 10 December to discuss the approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, and will discuss Moderna’s request on 17 December.
Gem Tours & Travels is formulating a 3-4-night tour package from Mumbai to New York priced at approximately Rs 1.75 lakh per head that includes similar services as Chariot World Tours’. “We are only taking registrations of Indians with a valid 10-year US visa,” he told ThePrint. “We are not taking any money but just collecting data for the moment. We are proud to have coined the term ‘vaccine tourism’.”
Zenith Holidays plans to announce a 22-day tour package to the UK priced at Rs 6 lakh per person on single occupancy and Rs 4.5 lakh per person on double occupancy. It will include assistance to the healthcare centre where an individual may avail the vaccine shot.
“I’m sure by mid-January next year, the vaccine will be available for foreigners in the UK. They have a small population so they may be able to distribute very fast,” Manoj Mishra, Director, Zenith Holidays, told ThePrint, adding that the company is also looking at tours to Russia, home to the Sputnik V vaccine.
None of the operators have tied up with any foreign firms or agencies as of now. “We will try to work with UK health officials and their tourism board to check when they will allow foreigners to get vaccinated. We of course won’t take people without any prior arrangements in place,” Mishra said.
The operators are looking towards ‘vaccine tourism’ with hope as India’s travel and tourism sector was one of the first to be hit by the Covid-19 crisis and restrictions on international travel are still in place. The sector is likely to face losses to the tune of 7 trillion, according to a study by CII and hospitality consulting firm Hotelivate.
India last month extended till 31 December the suspension of scheduled international commercial passenger flights to and from the country. The suspension, which has been in place since 23 March in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, was to expire on 30 November.
In the absence of regular international flight services, the country has been operating special flights under the Vande Bharat Mission since May and under the bilateral “air bubble” arrangements with selected countries since July.