Mainland Chinese citizens are eager to travel — for the West’s mRNA Covid vaccines

Passengers prepare to enter Shenzhen through the Lok Ma Chau Spur Line Control Point on the first day of the resumption of normal travel between Hong Kong and mainland China on Jan. 8, 2023, in Hong Kong. Li Zhihua | China News Service | Getty Images

Mainland China’s move away from its zero-Covid policy has led to a sharp surge in infections, and the resumption of travel means some are looking farther afield for vaccines. In mid-December, China’s full Covid vaccination rate stood near 87%, with 54% boosted. The main Covid vaccines approved for use in China are from Sinovac and Sinopharm. Mainlanders have been flocking to Macao in recent months for Western mRNA vaccines, which are widely administered around the world but not endorsed by China. But even if patients attempted booking an appointment as early as mid-December, the next available slots at the Macau University of Science and Technology Hospital, the only location offering jabs to tourists, are as late as February. Analysts expect that the list of destinations for vaccine tourism will grow.

‘Natural first destination’: Hong Kong

“I believe that the natural first destination of the Chinese vaccine tourism is Hong Kong. It will then spread to Asia and the U.S., maybe extend to Europe,” Sam Radwan, president of management consultancy Enhance International, told CNBC. “It’s been long since I went to Hong Kong. I can take a vacation, as well as get vaccinated. Won’t this be killing two birds with one stone? Without saying further, I have made my appointment and am getting ready,” a man from Shaanxi province posted Friday on Chinese social media website Weibo. Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee said in a press briefing in late December that the city “has reached a relatively high vaccination rate,” adding that it has a “sufficient amount of medicine to fight Covid.” But Hong Kong won’t provide free Covid vaccinations to short-term travelers. “We want to prevent visitors coming to Hong Kong to use the vaccines at the expense of Hong Kong people and we will not offer government procured vaccines free of charge to non Hong Kong residents,” Hong Kong’s government officials said, adding that visitors have to stay a minimum of 30 days to receive a booster shot.

Our recent study suggests Hong Kong and Thailand may benefit the most from the international tourism channel if China removes visa restrictions and outbound travel gradually normalizes Goldman Sachs

Expect to see a wave of mainlanders traveling to Hong Kong to get their jabs, said Lam Wingho, a member of Hong Kong’s Scientific Committee on Vaccine-Preventable Diseases, according to a local media report. Lin said he received a steady stream of inquiries from citizens who wanted to know how relatives from mainland China could get vaccinated in Hong Kong, he was reported as saying. Thailand is another viable destination for vaccine tourists, and the country ranks among the top destinations that the Chinese are keen on traveling to, which include Japan, South Korea, the U.S. and Singapore. Thailand’s Tourism and Sports Minister in late December said he was considering proposing free vaccines for foreign tourists who request booster shots. And there’s interest from the Chinese. “At first I did not plan to go to Thailand, but for the sake of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, I’m thinking of going,” a Weibo user based in Shanghai said upon the announcement. Another Weibo user residing in Beijing wrote that such a policy move would not only “help attract tourists to Thailand,” but also offer more variety for inoculation. “For mainland Chinese who are hoping for more vaccine options, they will be able to get vaccinated with the jabs they want. Win-win.”

“Going outside of China is definitely a big remedy on the minds of a lot … I believe that the Chinese will travel wherever they can get the medicine,” said Sam Radwan, president of management consultancy Enhance International. CFOTO | Future Publishing | Getty Images