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Some tiny countries hope for a big boost from vaccine tourism

Landlocked San Marino hopes that its surplus vaccine supply will be an enticing draw for tourists. (Davide Bertuccio for The Washington Post)

Book a three-night hotel stay in the European microstate of San Marino, and your room could come with a bonus amenity: A coronavirus vaccine.

The landlocked republic, which has vaccinated roughly three-quarters of its population, now hopes to lure tourists by offering them doses of the Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine. While the vaccine’s two doses will cost only 50 euros (roughly $61), recipients must book a second visit to San Marino several weeks later for the second dose, and once again stay at a hotel for a minimum of three nights.

The plan has “a real possibility to attract a kind of tourism that none of us would have ever before thought possible to attract,” Foreign Minister Luca Beccari said at a news conference last week.

The Maldives, another small country with a high vaccination rate and a tourism-dependent economy, has plans for a similar campaign. And while wealthy “vaccine tourists” once faced criticism for crossing international borders in search of a shot, a growing number of nations that are awash in coronavirus vaccine supplies have indicated that they’ll gladly share their surplus doses with anyone who can get on a plane.

In the United States, Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R) has offered free vaccines to any tourists who fly into one of the state’s major airports this summer. The border city of Laredo, Tex., which was already a destination for vaccine seekers from Mexico, is hoping to welcome more of those travelers and even add another direct flight from Mexico City.

Earlier this spring, international travelers rushed to book trips to Serbia, which had an oversupply of vaccine doses and invited foreigners to sign up for appointments. Although that option is no longer available, global travel agencies have started offering package tours of Russia, which dispenses its Sputnik V vaccine to travelers willing to spend three days in the country afterward, so that their reaction can be monitored, and return again the next month for the second dose.

Some countries, including Zimbabwe, have stated that they won’t turn away any foreigners who show up in search of surplus vaccine doses and are willing to pay. But the Maldives and San Marino are going a step further by explicitly pitching themselves as destinations for vaccine tourism.

Abdulla Mausoom, the Maldives’ minister of tourism, told CNBC in April that the Indian Ocean archipelago is already popular with wealthy executives who are able to work remotely. He hopes that visitors will stay long enough to get both their first and second coronavirus vaccine shots on the same trip, boosting the tourism sector, which is the source of roughly 67 percent of the island nation’s gross domestic product.

But vaccine seekers can’t pack their bags yet, because the government of the Maldives has made clear that it plans to vaccinate all its citizens first. Currently, more than 56 percent of the population has received an initial shot, but only about 28 percent are fully vaccinated.

In San Marino, which began offering doses to visitors this week, officials expect to have vaccinated nearly all eligible residents by the end of May. Roughly 1,000 to 2,000 doses should be left over, Beccari told The Washington Post, but the government will consider purchasing additional supplies so that it can keep providing vaccines to tourists throughout the summer if the service proves popular.

Like many of its European neighbors, San Marino saw its tourism revenue plummet over the past year. But since the nation of roughly 34,000 is not part of the European Union, it does not have access to the bloc’s recovery fund. The decision to try to lure tourists with vaccines, Beccari said, came from “the need to boost a sector that is suffering.”

Four friends from Latvia who drove 26 hours in a camper van became the first foreign tourists to take advantage of the scheme on Tuesday, the Guardian reported. After getting a vaccine dose, they toured a historic castle and did some tax-free shopping. More than three dozen other visitors are expected to get their shots in the next few days.

Notably, the offer is not open to citizens of Italy, which surrounds San Marino on all sides. The two nations have been at odds since San Marino’s plan to rely on Italy for its vaccine supply became bogged down by bureaucratic delays, prompting the micronation to strike out on its own and make a deal with Russia.

Since then, frustration has grown as San Marino’s vaccine rollout rapidly outpaces Italy’s. A separate program that will allow cross-border workers who live in Italy to be vaccinated in San Marino has been proposed, Beccari said this week.

Some of the first tourists to claim vaccine slots in San Marino are coming from the United States and United Arab Emirates, where vaccines are readily available, suggesting that they may have been motivated by novelty rather than scarcity. But the notion of vaccine tourism tends to be fraught, since it guarantees that people with the time and money to travel will have an easier time accessing vaccines.

Wealthy Latin American elites have flocked to Florida, Texas and other U.S. states where vaccine hesitancy is now a larger challenge than vaccine shortages, creating some discomfort among officials who would rather see excess doses sent to countries where they’re needed so that low-income residents can benefit too.

“Vaccine tourism is not the solution,” Carissa Etienne, director of the Pan American Health Organization, said at a news conference last week. “Vaccines can make the difference between life and death and should not be a privilege of rich countries or wealthy people, but a right of everyone.”

Read more:

San Marino, the micronation within Italy, stokes envy with speedy Russian-supplied vaccine campaign

Vacation and a vaccine? Some tourist sites are offering shots to visitors.

When smaller is better: Microstates, island nations and overseas territories speed ahead in global vaccination race

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant. Here’s some guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

Variants: Instead of a single new Greek letter variant, a group of immune-evading omicron spinoffs are popping up all over the world. Any dominant variant will likely knock out monoclonal antibodies, targeted drugs that can be used as a treatment or to protect immunocompromised people.

Tripledemic: Hospitals are overwhelmed by a combination of respiratory illnesses, staffing shortages and nursing home closures. And experts believe the problem will deteriorate further in coming months. Here’s how to tell the difference between RSV, the flu and covid-19.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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