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COVID: Desperate Germans mull 'vaccine vacations'

Kristie Pladson
March 19, 2021

Germany still lags behind its peers when it comes to vaccinating its population against COVID-19. Now travel agencies are offering pleasure trips with the jab on top.

A beach chair under an umbrella on Aretes beach in Toroni area in Halkidiki, Greece
A market for vaccine tourism is emerging amid the slow vaccine roll-out in GermanyImage: Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto/picture alliance

Once upon a time, people would travel to Amsterdam just for the luxury of legally smoking marijuana in one of the Dutch city's many "coffee shops." Today, in a world plagued by a pandemic, travelers are after something a little harder.

Vaccination tourism has arrived on the scene in Germany. Travel companies want to offer frustrated Germans the chance to combine sun and surf with the much-coveted COVID-19 jab.

Once lauded for its low coronavirus infection and fatality rates, in recent months Germany has struggled to contain the virus's more contagious mutations. Previous hotbeds of infection, like the US, the UK, and Israel, have made great advances in vaccinating large portions of their populations. Germany, meanwhile, is still working its way through the elderly.

Travel companies want to bring some of the German demand for the vaccine to countries with a healthier supply. In February, German travel agency Fit Reisen (in English "Fit Travel") began advertising for so-called "Impfreisen," or "vaccine vacations."

"We have received an increasing number of customer inquiries as to whether it would not be possible to combine a health vacation with a COVID-19 vaccination," a Fit Reisen spokesperson told DW. Under normal circumstances, the company specializes in health and wellness getaways with focuses like yoga and Ayurveda.

Solution for a struggling sector

Now the idea has been put on ice, the company says, pointing to expectations that the vaccine rollout in Germany will pick up in April. But the original plan had been to offer vaccination trips to countries where Fit Reisen already travels and where the local populations were already largely vaccinated.

As countries like Israel, Serbia, and the United Arab Emirates speed along with vaccinations, rumors have flourished that travelers from abroad will be able to get in line for the jab.

Ferrying Germans abroad to be vaccinated would have the twofold benefit of relieving pressure from the German health care system and stimulating the economy of the destination countries, Fit Reisen said in a separate conversation with Redaktionsnetzwerk Deutschland, the joint corporate newsroom of German Madsack Media Group. In the first half of 2020, tourist arrivals fell globally by more than 65%, with a near halt since April, according to a December report from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Uncharted territory

Other travel operators continue to offer such packages, despite hurdles posed by travel restrictions and the fact that most vaccine doses are reserved for locals. International vaccination vacations are all but impossible — for now. Some are betting that's about to change. 

Norwegian travel agency World Visitor caters to travelers in Nordic countries as well as Germany. Recently, the company's website has featured a section entitled "Impfreisen," listed only in German, offering coronavirus vaccine getaways to Russia. Customers can choose from a range of travel packages that all include arrangements to receive the Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine.

One option, starting from €1,199 ($1,428), includes two quick trips in the space of one month, one for each of the necessary doses. For €2,999, customers can opt for the more lavish, 22-day stay in a Russian health resort, with a jab at the beginning and the end of the trip. A third option consists of a trip to a spa hotel in Turkey, with layovers at a Russian airport boasting a vaccination center in the terminal.

Getting around the lockdown – spending the winter in a camper van

"A vaccination center is to be opened shortly in the transit area of the Moscow airport," the company wrote on its website. "Thus the somewhat complex visa procurement with ministerial invitation is void." German travelers to Russia require an official invitation to enter.

A vaccination center has already opened in terminal E of the Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow, but it is only open to Russian citizens and residents, the airport confirmed to DW. A closer look at the terms of the offers shows that the travel agency does not guarantee its customers will be vaccinated.

"The service of the tour operator is limited only to the transfer service and the arrangement of the doctor's appointment," states a text in German on the website.

World Visitor co-partner Albert Sigl told DW that it anticipates a vaccination center at Sheremetyevo opening to foreigners in the near future and that for now the company is accepting nonbinding prebookings.

As for the longer stays, World Visitor on Friday said that it can now offer concrete appointments for vaccinations, citing partnerships made with specialized Russian travel agencies as well as multiple private Russian hospitals with permission from the Russian Ministry of Health to vaccinate non-Russian citizens.

Travel agencies feeling the coronavirus pinch

Market responds to demand

The presence of a vaccination center at a Moscow airport has been the source of much excitement and confusion. In February, it was widely reported that Lufthansa had plans in the works to help wannabe vaccine vacationers skirt the hassle of getting a Russian visa by offering vaccinations at its member lounge at Sheremetyevo. Lufthansa denied the report on twitter. 

While vaccine tourism could contribute towards the common goal of ending the coronavirus pandemic, it presents an ethical conundrum: Is it fair to make the majority of the population wait on the lifesaving drug while those with the financial means make a holiday of it? And should travel companies be making money this way?

For Austrian media mogul Christian W. Mucha, these offers are making up for deficiencies created by politicians.

Advertising with the slogan, "First come. First go. Freedom for you," Mucha has launched Impfreisen.at (no affiliation with the World Visitor initiative), his own effort to provide people with the opportunity to travel abroad to be vaccinated.

"It is highly regrettable," the Impfreise.at website says, "and detrimental to all of us that the European Union failed to provide sufficient vaccines for all Europeans at the right time."

"This is where Impfreisen.at steps in," it continues. This company, too, is providing nonbinding prebookings for a variety of all-inclusive vacation travel packages, this time with "guaranteed access to the coronavirus vaccination" regardless of the traveler's age or place on the vaccine priority list.

Nearly 5,000 prebookings holding spots for some 20,000 individuals have already come in, according to a ticker on the company's website.

Questionable ethics

"Many of those who would like to book with Impfreisen.at simply cannot afford it," a note signed by Mucha on the website reads.

Impfreisen.at will therefore provide trips free of charge to one-tenth of those who order its cheapest package, contingent on the recipient demonstrating a legitimate financial need, the website says.

"With our activity we want to help as many people as possible to get their vaccination legally, cheaply and promptly," Mucha writes. "Where the official side has failed."

A note from Mucha posted on March 17 says the project has been in direct contact with government agencies and expects to be able to offer vaccination trips within a matter of weeks.

Vaccination tourism is an "unethical business model," German Social Democratic (SPD) politician and health expert Karl Lauterbach recently told German broadcaster WDR, adding that it would be better if extra dosages were distributed to countries that need them.