Covid-19 Vaccines in U.S. Beckon Foreigners Seeking Shots and Shops
McALLEN, Texas—Even before New York City announced plans to offer visitors free vaccines, tourism from Texas to Florida has received a boost as tens of thousands from Mexico and other countries fly to the U.S. for a shot in the arm.
“Enjoy Dallas, Includes Covid Vaccine,” said a Mexico travel agency ad. Thai tour companies are selling vaccine packages to California. Northern states in the U.S. are supplying their Canadian neighbors with doses.
Most of the travel appears to be between Mexico and Texas. Mexican airlines have added routes to South Texas and stepped up frequency. Flights to Houston, Dallas and San Antonio are booked for weeks, and prices are rising.
Cindy Mijares, a 31-year-old jewelry designer from Monterrey, Mexico, said she booked a Covid-19 vaccination appointment at a Texas pharmacy, as have many of her friends. People hesitate to talk about crossing the border for a vaccine, concerned that they are doing something wrong, she said, adding that she just wants life to go back to normal.
“I’m excited, I’m happy, I want to go travel,” she said.
Mexico has fully vaccinated 6% of its population, compared with 31% in the U.S., according to figures from Our World in Data. Mexico is still mostly focusing on people over the age of 60, while the U.S. is providing the shots to those 16 or older.
In April, some 207,000 passengers departed for the U.S. from Mexico City’s international airport, compared with 177,000 in March and 95,000 in February, according to preliminary data from the airport. Top destinations in April were Houston and Dallas, with 41,000 and 26,000 passengers, respectively, followed by Los Angeles, Miami and San Antonio.
Patricia Ridruejo, 38, who was about to board a recent flight from Mexico City to Dallas with her sister, said they didn’t want to wait for the vaccine any longer to spend time safely with their 72-year-old mother. They had already booked flights for their second doses.
“We want to end this nightmare once and for all,” Ms. Ridruejo said. “If we have the money, why shouldn’t we do it?”
Texas, like many U.S. states, doesn’t require residency for Covid-19 vaccines. Unlike in Mexico, where there are too few vaccines to go around, some U.S. states are offering incentives. New Jersey this week announced a “shot and a beer,” offering a free drink at a participating brewery to adults who have received their first shots.
On Thursday, New York City began promoting itself as a travel spot for vaccine seekers. Florida officials announced in April that they would rescind a residency requirement put in place after an initial surge of vaccine tourism. In Alaska, Gov. Mike Dunleavy said travelers could get free vaccines at the state’s major airports starting June 1, in an effort to boost tourism.
While Texas state officials have said foreigners account for a tiny fraction of shots administered, travelers often list a local address on forms.
Mexico’s travel agencies, battered by the pandemic, have been quick to spot an opportunity. They sold U.S. tourist packages in March and April to 170,000 people, most of them seeking the vaccine, said Eduardo Paniagua, the head of an industry association. The U.S.-Mexican border is closed to nonessential ground traffic, but travelers can enter by plane.
The Mexican editor Eduardo Huerta, 56, wrote in his newspaper, El Economista, about traveling to Texas to get a vaccine. He had heard it was easiest to find appointments in smaller, rural towns, and he went to Corsicana, Texas, about 55 miles south of Dallas. His hotel was full of Mexicans who were in the U.S. to receive shots, he said.
Mr. Huerta had a family friend who died of Covid-19, and a co-worker lost both of her parents to the disease. Now, he said, many people he knows are heading north for vaccines. One of them saw a Houston Astros game during the trip, while another rented an
for three weeks for family members who were seeking two doses. Mr. Huerta returned for his second dose Thursday.
“I’m not embarrassed,” he said. “We come from a country where the vaccination process is going very slowly, and is being managed inefficiently, and we don’t want to die.”
Mexico’s government has cited difficulties in gaining access to vaccines and alleged that some developed countries have accumulated doses at the expense of developing nations.
The trips to the U.S. have a knock-on effect on local economies. Vaccine-seekers buy flights, stay at hotels and spend extra time shopping and eating out. They revive the economies of places such as Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, where businesses reliant on cross-border trade have been hurt by a year of the border being closed.
Mexican visitors to McAllen, Texas, typically made up $1 billion of the city’s annual average of $3.5 billion in retail sales before the pandemic, said
president of the chamber of commerce. The local population has one of the lowest incomes in the U.S., but the area is a top destination for wealthy Mexican shoppers.
At Carats, on McAllen’s main drag, Carlos Melguizo and Saul Sanchez wear jeweled cuff links and offer glasses of Champagne to customers checking out the glittering rows of diamond necklaces. Many of their customers are Mexicans, and business plunged when the border closed. They tried to appeal to locals by increasing their inventory of moderately priced gifts, with their top-selling item being a note pad with a cheeky expletive.
Now the Mexican customers are coming back, resulting in the highest April sales in his 25 years at the store, Mr. Melguizo said. He doesn’t ask his customers what draws them, but he notices the Band-Aids on their shoulders, he said.
“As a country, we’re helping Mexico get vaccinated, and that’s going to help us,” he said.
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One group particularly interested in vaccine travel has been Mexico’s private doctors, who weren’t included in vaccination of health personnel working in public hospitals. Only about a quarter of private doctors have been vaccinated, and those who can afford to do so are making the trip, said Belinda Cázares, the head of Mexico’s federation of doctors associations.
Other foreigners are getting U.S. vaccines through official channels. Mike Murphy, a 53-year-old truck driver from Winnipeg, Manitoba, was one of hundreds of truckers from the Canadian province to take advantage last month of a free cross-border vaccination program by North Dakota. The state is offering doses to roughly 6,000 Canadian truckers after Manitoba’s premier requested help.
Mr. Murphy, who drove his big rig to a state site about 30 miles south of the border, said the shot put a bounce in his step.
In Browning, Mont., the Blackfeet Nation recently offered hundreds of surplus vaccines to members of the Blackfoot Confederacy in Canada and residents of the town of Cardston, Alberta, at a drive-through vaccination site near the border last month.
In Thailand, a travel agent said her company had 200 people book vaccine tours to the U.S. in the first day of taking reservations. Travelers pay the equivalent of about $2,400, excluding airfare, to spend 10 days in California in a group of eight to 10 people, the agent said. The itinerary includes a
Johnson & Johnson
shot, visits to San Francisco and Los Angeles landmarks, beach visits and several days of shopping.
Asked during a news conference about Thai vaccine travel to the U.S., Opas Karnkawinpong, director-general of the country’s Department of Disease Control, denied it was occurring.
“How could they give free shots for other citizens when they can’t vaccinate every American citizen?” Dr. Karnkawinpong asked.
—David Luhnow, Wilawan Watcharasakwet, Vipal Monga and Kim Mackrael contributed to this article.
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