You May Want To Read This Before Booking A ‘Vaccine Tour’ To U.S.

While branding during Covid times may range from harmless to pointless, a travel firm may have taken the pandemic pitch too far.

A heath worker prepares to inject the Covid-19 trial vaccine into a patient in Russia. (Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg)
A heath worker prepares to inject the Covid-19 trial vaccine into a patient in Russia. (Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg)

Following the Covid-19 outbreak, companies tried to cash in by marketing tailor-made offerings. Food companies, for instance, came up with “immunity boosters”, fashion firms started offering bespoke face masks and there’s even a “phonesoap” available to disinfect your device. While that kind of branding may range from harmless to pointless, a travel firm seems to have taken the pandemic pitch too far.

Social media was recently rife with messages over Mumbai-based Gem Tours and Travels Pvt. promising that it would help customers skip the wait for a Covid-19 vaccine by travelling to U.S., the country with the highest number of people affected by the pandemic, for an inoculation. The cost? Rs 1,74,999, including airfare (Mumbai-New York-Mumbai), stay for three nights and four days, with free breakfast thrown in.

“Be among the first to get Corona Vaccine: As soon as Pfizer Vaccine is officially published to sell in America (Tentative date 11th Dec) v r ready to get it done for select FEW VVIP Clients (sic),” the text message read.

GST, visa costs and “ground transportation” would be extra, on a first come-first serve basis, the message said.

The Gem Tours and Travels message that went viral.
The Gem Tours and Travels message that went viral.

Soon enough, the company tweeted a disclaimer, urging people to not fall prey to fake news.

“We’re developing vaccine tourism,” the disclaimer read, adding U.S. may distribute the vaccine:

  • First (to) Health Workers.
  • Then those U.S. citizens who are having any of the following conditions: (diabetes, heart ailments, BP (blood pressure), thyroid & age above 65)
  • Then commercially available in hospitals (sic).

“We at GEM aren’t holding or procuring any vaccine, everything we will arrange will be within laws of United States of America. We will only process your requirements,” it said, adding it isn’t collecting any advance amounts or deposits. “Right now, no time frame can be committed.”

The registration details are needed so that when vaccine tourism starts, “you would be on first priority”, the disclaimer read.

And then came two additional conditions:

“Unless they announce official sales Other Than American Citizens, we cannot get U done with the vaccine (sic).” AND

“We aren’t responsible for any payment collected on behalf of vaccine tourism”.

The package, sales for which opened on Sunday, has received more than 2,000 enquiry calls so far, Hemang Doshi, director of the 37-year-old travel agency with operations in 45 countries, told BloombergQuint over the phone. “Some people have also registered with us by providing us basic information.”

He declined to elaborate on how his agency plans to secure approval from the U.S. government for procuring vaccines for tourists.

Confirmed coronavirus cases in India rose past the 92-lakh mark on Nov. 25. The world’s second-most populous nation, though, faces the risk of being overrun by the virus amid the onset of winter even as a clutch of vaccine candidates emerge, showing various degrees of success in combating the pathogen.

And India, while extending the ban on international air travel, has entered into air bubble or transport corridor arrangements with 19 countries, including the U.S., the Indian Express reported, with regular commercial operations put off till March 2021.

Consumer activists and experts warned people to avoid such schemes.

Shirish Deshpande, advocate and chairman of the consumer forum Mumbai Grahak Panchayat, said people mustn’t fall prey to such wild and imaginative offers when nothing regarding the vaccine is certain. “If people put their money into something that’s so uncertain, they’re bound to get into trouble. In fact, we should have faith in our own government and its efforts to procure vaccines for all citizens,” he said, adding why would anyone want to go to U.S. and get vaccinated.

Pronab Sarkar, president of Indian Association of Tour Operators, a national umbrella body comprising around 1,600 members from various segments of the tourism industry, agreed. This kind of travel package is uncalled for, he said. To be sure, Gem Tours & Travels isn’t a member of this association.

“No recognised tour operator will come up with such packages when there are no proper permissions in place,” Sarkar said. “We request people not to fall prey to such schemes as this is not foolproof.”

Sarkar said the travel agency is merely collecting data to build their client base. “They can later spam people with their other offers and packages.”