More Destinations Start Offering Free Medical Coverage to Attract Travelers: Will It Bring Them Back?

A month after mid-pandemic presidential elections ushered in a leader from the opposing political party, the Dominican Republic launched a “Plan for the Responsible Recovery of Tourism.” An idea of incoming President Luis Abinader, a former hotelier, the most surprising part of the $28 million package — implemented on September 15 through BanReservas — is the government’s offer of free emergency medical coverage for every tourist who vacations in the Dominican Republic through December 31, 2020.

Under this “traveler assistance plan,” the first of its kind in the Caribbean region, visitors under the age of 85 staying at a resort in the Dominican Republic will have their expenses covered in case of a medical emergency during their stay, whether Covid related or not, excluding pre-existing conditions and negligent acts.

In addition, quarantine lodging, airfare, doctor consultations, and medical transfers are included, among other potential expenses. Tourists receive their certificates at check-in, including contact information for a bilingual call center handling claims and medical assistance requests.

The Dominican Republic isn’t the first destination offering to cover tourists’ medical bills to attract them. Spain’s Canary Islands, open to the Schengen area, announced a program in August, explaining that “from now on, confidence in health security is as equally important a value when choosing to travel, as others.” The archipelago received 306,325 tourists that month, an increase of nearly 90,000 since reopening in July.

The Dominican government’s offer to pick up its tourists’ medical tabs is a bold push to restart tourism in the Caribbean’s leading vacation destination, where arrivals have gone from 6.4 million tourists in 2019 to 1.6 million from January through August 2020, or a 64.8 percent drop compared to the same period last year.

“We’re working on it being close to 35 to 50 percent of our full availability of rooms,” Andrés Marranzini Grullón, vice president of the Dominican Republic’s Association of Hotels and Tourism, told Skift. Like the rest of the Caribbean region, tourism is a vital economic driver for the country. “We have to be positive, because we have over 500,000 employees and collaborators that depend on [tourism]. More than 50 percent of our economy depends on this.”

Airlines have followed the free Covid coverage offer route. Emirates, Virgin Atlantic and Etihad began offering complimentary coverage in September. With the Caribbean’s high tourist season looming, WestJet announced no cost Covid coverage for any flights and WestJet Vacations bookings to Mexico, the Caribbean and some European destinations made on or after September 18 through August 31, 2021, for a stay of up to 21 days. In collaboration with Allianz Global Assistance, Air Canada’s free Covid travel insurance applies to Mexico and Caribbean packages through April 30, 2021. Ethiopian Airlines is the latest to join the pack recently, with a “Sheba Comfort” free Covid coverage plan for bookings on any of its international flights through March 2021.

“From a public health standpoint, Covid insurance is meaningless because it doesn’t prevent you from getting the virus,” said Dr. Henry Raymond, an associate professor at the Rutgers School of Public Health. “It might make it easy to deal with maybe financially, [but] really consider whether it’s worth the risk considering the unknown.”

Other destinations are collaborating with insurance companies to sell travelers low-cost travel health insurance packages. When reopening in June, Turkey offered its tourists €7,000 ($8,245) in medical cost coverage for plans priced as low as €15-23 ($18-$ 27) per person. A month later, 1.3 million visitors arrived, a significant bump from 295,840 in June, followed by 2.2 million in August. Portugal followed suit with low cost insurance offers. On the accommodations side, the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association’s Travel Protection Plan, in partnership with TripMate, allows tourists to purchase a medical coverage plan from member hotels, receiving up to $50,000 medical expense coverage and $500,000 emergency medical evacuation.

“It’s more about protecting yourself from the whole vacation experience, which would entail you have coverage after the vacation, giving yourself time to monitor symptoms that may come about after the trip itself,” Dr. Nadeen White, a pediatrician and travel blogger based in Atlanta, told Skift. “So for a policy like Emirates’ or Etihad’s, it makes sense when they cover you 30 days after your flight.”

But are these free and low-cost medical coverage offers leading to increased bookings? It’s too early to tell — for the Caribbean, however, bookings in general are on the rise. “It started slowly escalating in July, August, and now we’re at 65 percent of last September,” Robert Whorrall, a veteran global travel advisor and vice president of sales and marketing at Beach Bum Vacations, told Skift. “And it’s all Mexico and the Dominican Republic.”

According to Whorrall, travelers’ choices may have nothing to do with offers of free Covid medical expense coverage, if not pre- and post-travel requirements, such as pre-entry PCR (nasal swab) tests in the case of North Americans, or 14-day quarantines when returning home for Canadians and British citizens. “When the DR took away the test, [that’s when] we saw an increase in bookings,” Whorall said, referring to the former pre-entry PCR rule, now replaced with random application of rapid breathalyzer tests on arrival. “Eighty five percent want to go places that don’t have requirements. It’s just recently we started telling [clients] about the medical coverage. Some think it’s great, others aren’t worried because they say they’ll just go back to the US.”

As the pandemic continues, doing away with pre-entry PCR tests like Mexico and the Dominican Republic is a long way from becoming mainstream. Free Covid medical coverage offers, however, are likely to keep surfacing, along with a host of innovative protective measures — resort sanitary bubbles, safe travel corridors, and preflight testing are among the latest — targeting consumer confidence as tourism players prepare for fierce regional competition this winter season, for fewer tourists.

Photo Credit: The Dominican Republic is hoping that the promise of free medical coverage will help fill this beach at Bavaro in the coming months during peak season. Mustang Joe / Flickr

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