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Japanese look to 'vaccine tourism' amid slow rollout of COVID-19 shots at home

Times Square in New York City is seen bustling with tourists after a decline in the coronavirus transmission rate, on May 6, 2021. (Mainichi/Toshiyuki Sumi)

Vaccine tourism, or traveling overseas to get the COVID-19 jabs and maybe even take in some sights on the side, has been garnering attention in the United States and some other countries. And as disparity emerges across the world in the pace of inoculations, this new approach has caught the eye of some in Japan, where the vaccine rollout has been slow.

    Masayasu Shibayama, a 36-year-old programmer living in Tokyo, plans to travel to the U.S. in mid-June to get vaccinated. He says he will stay with his father, who lives in New Jersey. In several U.S. states, including New York, people can get vaccinations even if they are not registered residents.

    Shibayama decided to get vaccinated across the Pacific because he learned that his wife's parents in Yokohama weren't due to be vaccinated until July, and there was no telling when he would be able to get his shots.

    "I felt that the vaccination schedule wasn't advancing and that if I were in Japan, I wouldn't know when I could get vaccinated," he explained.

    According to "Our World in Data," a statistics site operated by researchers at Oxford University, 51.2% of people in the United States had received at least one COVID-19 shot as of June 7 this year. The proportion of vaccinated people also tops 50% in the United Kingdom, Mongolia, Chile and Hungary, and is over 60% in Israel and Canada. In Japan, on the other hand, the rate stood at a meager 10.9%.

    Shibayama's wife is unable to travel with him due to work commitments, and his daughter, aged 18 months, is too young to be eligible for a shot. While it meant he would be in the U.S. without them, his family, including his parents-in-law, urged him to go, he says.

    "I have health risks that could cause serious COVID-19 symptoms if I were infected with the coronavirus," Shibayama divulges. "I'm working from home, so the chances of me being infected on the job may be low, but my daughter goes to day care, and she's in contact with various people each day, so I can't say we're safe. If I was infected with the virus and got seriously ill or even died, then my wife and daughter would got through difficult times. Even my wife's parents are telling me, 'Pease get vaccinated quickly.'"

    Shibayama plans to fly from Tokyo's Haneda Airport to John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, then use a ride-hailing service to get to his father's home in New Jersey, using air miles to cover the cost of the trip. He is budgeting about 100,000 yen (about $912) for the cost of traveling from the airport and local living expenses. New York City, which neighbors New Jersey, has started providing tourists with a Johnson & Johnson vaccine that require only one shot, so he can have his trip over and done with in about two weeks.

    When entering the U.S., Shibayama needs a certificate obtained within three days of his departure to prove that he has tested negative for the coronavirus. He intends to buy a polymerase chain reaction testing kit at Haneda Airport and have a test done on the spot. When it comes to his return to Japan, the ministry of health is asking people to self-quarantine at home or other facilities for 14 days.

    A vial of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine is seen in Fukuoka on April 15, 2021. (Mainichi/Tomohisa Yazu)

    Shibayama's work is all remote, so he can work while in the U.S. "I was very lucky to be in an environment where I could work anywhere, with my stay not costing that much," he said. But he is still aware of the burden the trip will place on his family.

    "It'll be a lot for my wife to take care of a child alone while working, so we're asking her parents for support. And when I'm quarantining at home after getting back, I'll ask my wife of drop off and pick up our daughter from day care."

    According to the New York City website, vaccines are free and reservations aren't required at many vaccination sites. When getting a shot, people just need to present identification showing their age and fill in a form with their address and ethnicity.

    New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a news conference in May that tourist attractions such as Times Square and Central Park would be used as vaccination sites, and expressed confidence in the success of "vaccine tourism," stating, "This summer, you're going to see tourism come alive again in New York City."

    Regarding the use of vaccines to revitalize the economy, Hiroyuki Kamiyama, a senior consultant at Nomura Research Institute, who is familiar with the tourism industry, commented, "The appeal of the tourism industry is the wide scope of economic benefits it brings. Money flows to various industries, from accommodations, to restaurants, retail outlets, and the transportation sector. This helps to spur employment. And by bringing in tourists, you can promote the high vaccination rates in those areas -- in other words, the safety -- to people in other places."

    In New York City, a total of 45% of residents had been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as of the beginning of June, while 52% of people had received at least one shot.

    Kamiyama commented, "The inoculation rate of residents is relatively high, and measures to curb infections are advancing. So the mayor's policy (of vaccinating tourists) has probably been well received."

    New York Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks at a news conference in an online broadcast.

    However, only a few local bodies and countries have taken the lead in vaccine tourism like New York City. Kamiyama continued, "In fact, most of what is being called 'tourism' is simply people traveling to get vaccinated and travel agencies drawing up these plans."

    When it comes to the question of why national and local governments are not actively calling for inoculation of foreigners, there appear to be ethical issues.

    "From around March, we have seen wealthy people from Mexico and other places in Central and South America entering New York in search of vaccines. They aren't doing anything illegal, but on social media, there has been criticism, and people have been asking, 'Aren't human lives equal?'" Kamiyama points out.

    In Japan, the development of vaccines has not progressed, and the vaccine rollout has been slow. Considering it has been unable to wipe away concerns like those harbored by Shibayama, one wonders, is the government able to ask the public to "understand and support" hosting the Olympic and Paralympic Games?

    (Japanese original by Yukako Ono, Digital News Center)

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