Residents returning to Dubai over the festive period report paying up to Dh900 for a Covid-19 PCR test, which added huge costs and logistical issues to their travel arrangements. Even within a single country, states and provinces can have different protocols and prices, making it difficult to plan this leg of a trip.
Angus Duthie recently took a PCR test in Alexandria, Egypt, where he had travelled to for business. He booked his test to return to Dubai, where he lives with his family, through VFS, the global visa outsourcing company. With a final cost of Dh866, it was much higher than the costs incurred in the UAE, where even the fast-track PCR testing at the most expensive private hospitals does not exceed Dh250. The drive-through service also required Duthie to return in person to collect the results, and although the time frame given was 24 hours, the results were only ready after 30.
In addition, a local Egyptian mobile number was required for the facility to inform Duthie of when his test results were ready for collection. He says for trips such as his, businesses may cover the cost, but the additional financial strain may act as a deterrent for other travellers.
Nonetheless, the mandatory tests contributed in allaying some of the concerns Duthie had about travelling amid the pandemic. "It's costly, but the fact that the tests are being undertaken is reassuring, both at the departure point and on arrival in Dubai," he says.
“What was concerning was the lack of use of PPE in the departure airport in Egypt, the lack of distancing on the flight and the lack of hygiene protocols, distancing and mask-wearing being followed throughout Egypt.”
Meanwhile, in Cairo, procedures were different for Egyptian resident Tamer Khafaga, who had a test in his home city on January 5, at a Pure Health-affiliated facility, after returning home for a personal emergency. He paid Dh515 for his exit test and the result was back in under 12 hours. In Dubai, he paid Dh150 for his exit test. "The new rules for having a PCR test before travel can put some people off because of cost or associated hassle," he says.
And even though Khafaga participated in the vaccine trials, the trip was no less anxiety-inducing. "My biggest worries were to test positive while in Egypt, especially with the new strain, which for some people doesn't show any symptoms, but is still very infectious. I was worried about infecting family or friends, so it was a stressful time."
Dr Ria Mol, internal medicine specialist at Aster Clinic Dafza, says the availability and cost of tests continue to hinder the recovery of the travel industry. "While travelling, the tests should give faster results," she says. "It should be available in one to six hours, and available to conduct at larger scales."
She recommends the use of saliva samples rather than nasal or throat swabs to help achieve this. “The results should provide a high rate of accuracy. Both false positive and false negative results should be less than 1 per cent.”
PCR tests often require specialised laboratory machines and highly trained technicians, and are difficult to decentralise, explains Mol, who would like to see a more widely accessible diagnostic kit made available, not only to help contain the pandemic but also to prevent any future global health emergencies.
Gilbert Garcia returned to the Philippines for Christmas to visit his parents. The Dubai resident was fortunate to have access to free testing, as his province is covered by the local government. However, for tourists, private hospitals are charging between Dh305 and Dh458, he tells The National.
"For overseas Filipino workers, we also need to secure a return permit [from the Dubai government] stipulating all pertinent documents like an NOC from the company plus the residence visa, our overseas employment certificate, travel details, etc," Garcia says.
Upon arrival to the Philippines, he was immediately tested, as he was in Dubai. The country's department of health then offers a private bus to take travellers to a hotel contracted by the government, where people must wait for 16 to 24 hours for their results. "If it's negative, then we are free to go, otherwise you have to stay for 14 days, but this is all free and provided by our government," says Garcia.
In the UK, private tests are among the most expensive in the world, costing as much as £350 ($476) in facilities such as Private Harley Street Clinic. "Some destinations are charging more than $200 for the Covid-19 test, which is a real concern for the majority of the population," says Mol.
Making cost-effective tests available should be a priority for countries around the world, she says. “To prevent certain companies from making unreasonable profit at the expense of others, governments around the world should come forward to offer these tests at a low cost, similar to the international sharing of medical equipment and protection gear across borders.”
Chris Dutt, senior lecturer at the Emirates Academy of Hospitality Management, says the disparity in the cost of tests, and quarantine requirements, while necessary to ensure health and safety, are having a detrimental effect on travel and tourism.
"Concern over these varied requirements and the risk of these requirements changing can make tourists think twice before travelling. With different countries approving different vaccines, similar issues may arise, with some destinations requesting travellers to have a particular vaccine before arriving," he says.
Countries such as those in the GCC, which are taking a more consistent approach, such as a standard PCR test and little to no quarantine, stand to benefit from the pent-up desire for travel, however. "Many of these nations have strong healthcare systems and can handle escalations in infection numbers," says Dutt.
Steve Severance spent the new year in Zanzibar, where there is only one testing centre, in Stone Town. Costing Dh295, the process for testing in order to return to Dubai was fairly fast, he says, consisting of a 40-minute wait in the park beside the testing centre, and then another 10 minutes in the government-run facility, where tests consist of throat swabs.
Beyond the extra logistics and costs, Severance is conscious that travel includes a certain amount of risk amid the pandemic, despite being inoculated in December.
But the avid tourist, who often travels for his love of outdoor adventure, such as his recent kitesurfing trip to Zanzibar, says many will take the risk after almost a year of restrictions.
“I think the whole thing is annoying, but not that off-putting for travellers. For me, it’s worth going through it to be able to travel.”