Do you have a yellow card with your passport? Many cruisers don't, but people who have traveled by air or land to areas with higher risks of disease are familiar with this small immunization document that is usually kept tucked in your passport.
Formally known as the International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis (ICVP), this signed, stamped yellow card is traditionally given to people by their travel medicine doctors after receiving various vaccines – most notably yellow fever, but also for other diseases such as cholera, rabies or Japanese encephalitis. They were created by the World Health Organization (WHO) and are accepted as formal proof of vaccination at entry points around the world.
With COVID-19 vaccinations underway, people are wondering if similar proof of protection against the disease could lead to a "vaccine passport," of sorts, which would allow travelers to return to global free movement.
From individual countries to individual airlines, chatter about vaccine passports is more than just idle talk. Even in this early stage, it isn't a matter of if they will be rolled out, but rather when.
In the United States, the country's top infectious disease expert, Anthony Fauci, stated that "everything will be on the table for discussion" when asked by members of the media about the possibility for vaccination passports and even mandatory vaccinations at a local level.
Fauci stopped short of a federal vaccination mandate for U.S. citizens, but stated that proof of COVID-19 vaccination would likely be required in the future for certain organizations, companies or even hospitals.
The growing availability of vaccinations does not mean that requirements for COVID-19 PCR testing are going away, however. Instead, resources are being deployed to handle both testing and vaccination capabilities within the United States and beyond. In January, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) mandated COVID-19 PCR tests for all international travelers, including U.S. citizens, flying inbound into the United States from abroad.
"Testing (COVID-19 PCR) is not going to go away, probably for at least 12 months, if not 18," says Josh Walker, co-founder and COO at Utah-based Nomi Health, which provides COVID-19 testing services for a number of states and locations like Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood Airport and PortMiami. "Sites are being expanded where a portion of the site will continue to do testing. The other component, the other side of the site, will be doing vaccine deployment."
Increasing rates of vaccination against COVID-19 continue to grow as more vaccines are brought to market and made available on a global scale.
"In many states now, we have expanded our testing services into vaccine deployment," said Walker. "What seems to be emerging is we are one of the leaders of the pack in Miami-Dade, around their ability to quickly deploy vaccines in a comprehensive manner."
In November 2020, Denmark began work on a digital COVID-19 vaccine passport that would function not only as proof of vaccination for travel, but also for large-scale activities like concerts and events, as well as a condition of access to various business. That system was rolled out for Danish citizens in late May
"The corona passport we present today can be used from July 1 when you can travel within the EU," said Danish Finance Minister Nicolai Vammen, noting that the app can be used as proof of vaccination to visit a restaurant, hairdresser, or other location where it may be required.
In Canada, the ArriveCAN app was being updated to allow for travellers to upload a digital version of their vaccination paperwork for inspection by Canadian Border Services Agents upon their re-entry into the country. Fully vaccinated Canadians can skip mandatory hotel quarantine requirements as of July 5, and the ArriveCAN app facilitates the re-entry process into Canada.
Airlines are also leading the charge for proof of vaccination against COVID-19.
Australia's flag carrier, Qantas, announced in November 2020 that proof of vaccination would likely be required for passengers arriving into and departing internationally from Australia.
Qantas isn't alone in its thinking. Several airlines, including Lufthansa, Swiss, United, Virgin Atlantic and Jet Blue, have already rolled out a shared digital app called CommonPass to jointly share COVID-19 PCR test results for passengers. The system could be used to verify digital proof of COVID-19 vaccination as well.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) is also in the process of developing a separate digital pass system that will display PCR and vaccination results from passengers to airlines and relevant government authorities.
Not everyone agrees, however. The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) issued a statement noting it does not support the practice of opening borders to vaccinated travelers, while keeping them shut for others.
"It will take a significant amount of time to vaccinate the global population, particularly those in less advanced countries, or in different age groups," said WTTC president and CEO Gloria Guevara. "Therefore, we should not discriminate against those who wish to travel but have not been vaccinated."
In the absence of formal vaccine passports, many cruise lines are already requiring passengers to present proof of full vaccination against COVID-19 as a condition of sailing. But until a digital system is established in the United States and abroad, most lines are reqesting passengers bring their actual paperwork with them. Photocopies and digital reproductions are, for the most part, not accepted.
"The arrival of highly efficacious vaccines is a game-changer," said Royal Caribbean chairman and CEO Richard Fain in a video. "Previously, we expected cruising to resume based on creating a virtual bubble of safety on the ship, even if the rest of the country was experiencing significant spread. Vaccines change all that."
On Cruise Critic's message boards, would-be passengers tend to agree that proof of vaccination against COVID-19 is a step in the right direction for cruise lines seeking to fully restart.
"We used to carry a yellow booklet with records of vaccinations in our passports, and they were checked by officials when entering many countries," writes moviela. "Polio, Cholera, MMR, and Yellow Fever were required in Europe and Africa, and most countries in South America. I don't know why Covid19 could not be accounted in a similar way."
Other posters pointed to the delay in rolling out new requirements for any initiative within the United States, such as the switchover to Real-ID for air travel, could potentially complicate the rollout of vaccination requirements for domestic cruises.
"How many times has Real-ID implementation been delayed?" writes jfunk138. "It is very hard to get widespread compliance with paperwork requirements like this."
With the requirement for proof of immunization against COVID-19 becoming a standard part of the cruise industry and many other forms of travel, it is clear that some kind of concise system is needed in order to manage the myriad of documentation issued by local health authorities, and to verify its authenticity.
Until then, passengers seeking to cruise or travel abroad should pack their original proof of vaccination paperwork with them, tucked securely into their passport.
Cruise Critic will monitor this subject and update this article as new information becomes available.