“What the US is doing is absolute genius”, a local entrepreneur in Mexico recently told me. He was referring to the worst kept secret in the Americas - that tens, if not hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans have been pouring into the US to get vaccinated. The numbers are so high that Mexican-US travel was actually 10% higher in May 2021 than in May 2019 pre-pandemic, compared to 95%+ declines between other countries and the US:
The US has stumbled into being the world’s premier destination for vaccine tourism. An ironic twist for a country that, pre-pandemic, was more famous for its own citizens flying from the country to seek affordable healthcare in places like Mexico and Canada.
American friends that I speak with about this sometimes react negatively, believing that foreigners are benefiting from free vaccines at the expense of the US taxpayer. They blame the state and federal government for their ignorance of what is really happening on the ground, allowing this situation to go unchecked.
Nothing could be further from the truth. By now, states and the federal government know what is happening. They aren’t interfering not out of any sense of true altruism in my opinion, but because vaccine tourism is a boon for their states and the US taxpayer.
State governments reached this conclusion in different ways. Florida and Texas became vaccine tourist hubs mostly by accident. Early on in their vaccine rollouts they allowed, as many states did, for non-residents to be vaccinated. However these loose requirements quickly attracted foreign tourists, especially to places like Miami and Houston.
The vast majority of these tourists came from Latin American countries which, unlike their European counterparts, never had a travel ban entering the US despite countries like Mexico, Peru, and Argentina having some of the highest COVID cases and deaths worldwide.
By contrast, states like New York and Alaska have purposely courted foreign vaccine tourists as a way to boost their local economies, comparing getting vaccinated there to receiving a souvenir.
And why not? The numbers speak for themselves. The US government is buying vaccines from the major manufacturers at an average price of between $10 (J&J) and $20 (Pfizer) a dose.
Yet according to the US Travel Association, the average Mexican tourist spends $668 per visit to the US1. This statistic is likely to underestimate how much they’re spending now, given that it’s from 2018 - when a recorded 85% of visits from Mexico were via land border. The land border between the US and Mexico remains mostly closed, so it’s fair to say that most vaccine tourists are probably spending more just on airfares alone.
Let’s say then that conservatively the average spend is $1000 with most of this going towards airfares, accommodation, and entertainment. That’s a roughly 25x (Pfizer) to 100x (J&J) return for the US by providing free vaccines to foreigners.
It’s not as though US citizens are missing out on vaccines because of this either. Vaccine rates have stagnated at around 50-60% in many states. Any US adult that wants a vaccine can get one.
Of course, vaccines aren’t and shouldn’t just be about money and returns on investment. Only rich Latin Americans have been able to get vaccinated in the US, a totally unfair and inequitable situation. Despite recent moves to export more vaccines, the US has been guilty of hoarding supplies at the expense of the rest of the world. And while it may be working for them economically right now, a combination of increased vaccine manufacturing capacity in other parts of the world and continued worldwide pressure to export surplus vaccines means it's unlikely vaccine tourism to the US will become a lasting trend.
It would be remiss though not to acknowledge the US’s role in vaccinating hundreds of thousands of foreigners, even if they did this in a way that was most beneficial for them. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing overall. The more vaccinated people the better. Vaccinated Latin Americans will return to their countries far less likely to spread COVID and far less likely to fill up hospital beds in healthcare systems that have been on the brink of collapse.
Plus how often do you have red state governors willingly provide free healthcare to foreigners? That for me is the true genius of it all.
A big thanks to Diana Klatt, Alberto Sadde, Steven Ovadia, and Jordan Jones for reviewing early drafts of this piece.