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On her first international trip, to Switzerland, since Feb. 2020, Heather Greenwood Davis discovers what vaccine passports mean for travellers.Heather Greenwood Davis/The Globe and Mail

I’m on a layover in the Montreal airport, on my way to Switzerland, and I really want a burger. The only thing standing in my way: proof of vaccination. Quebec’s new rules for indoor dining demand it. I pull out my paper receipt verifying I’m fully vaccinated, am invited in and prepare to remove my mask and savour my meal. That’s when it dawns on me that with no requirement for vaccination to enter the airport itself, nothing protects me as I eat in the airport restaurant, which is not walled in, from the potentially COVID-carrying traveller sitting at the neighbouring gate, except the waist-high, decorative planter between us. I could literally hand him a fry. And who knows what I might receive in return. The plan has some flaws.

While Canadians may still be pondering the merits of a national COVID-19 vaccine passport, anyone considering international travel will quickly realize that abroad, there’s no debate. Documents like the EU pass have become the international equivalents of a green light. Without one of these QR code-emblazoned records, your vacation may disappear. And even for travellers with an accepted proof of vaccination, there is still much to consider, including a tourism work force that is depleted globally and the lack of consistent rules on what documentation is required and what exactly it is required for.

I figured that out in mid-September when I travelled outside of the country for the first time since the pandemic started. I arrived in Switzerland two days before their national vaccine passport mandate went into effect. Without a QR code, my only option to access indoor amenities was constant testing. Here’s what that looked like.

Monday

Testing is the first order of business in Geneva this morning. A negative PCR test buys me three days of entry into indoor amenities, but the results can take several hours to arrive. If I want to eat lunch inside today, I’ll need a rapid antigen test as well. Those results are available in about 30 minutes but grant me only 48 hours. Luckily, tests in Switzerland are easy to find. Walking down any main street in almost every city I visit, I can spot the signs in windows and on sidewalks or the telltale lines – avoidable if you book an appointment. My two tests today cost about $200. And despite having no reason to suspect I might be positive, waiting for the negative result is excruciating. It arrives in an easy to download app, I exhale, happy I can eat lunch anywhere I want, and depart to my next destination: Zurich.

I meet my first “COVID bouncer” at the iconic Dolder Grand hotel that afternoon. Standing at a table cordoned off by stanchions, the man asks to see both my test and my passport. Once scanned I’m allowed into the grand lobby. Another traveler, who skipped the rapid test in favour of a PCR, hasn’t received their results and is forced to return to the train station to get one before being allowed entry. There is no leeway here.

A tourism bubble

At check-in, one of the clerks expresses a welcome before gesturing to my mask and gently reminding me: “You can take that off if you wish. You won’t need that here.”

Unlike the Montreal airport, every guest inside this building is “safe.” They are either fully vaccinated, have proven they’re recovered from COVID or have a negative test result like me. I remove my mask and am surprised by my relief. I feel nervous, but by the time I’m headed to dinner I’m happily reminded what lipstick looks like, and two years of stress seem to melt from my shoulders.

By breakfast the next morning not wearing a mask feels natural. But on checkout, the real world returns. The bouncer is at his post, his table laden with masks for guests heading out. I hesitate at the door and consider living here forever, but eventually leave for the train station.

Wristbands, like this one at Victoria Jungfrau Grand hotel and spa in Interlaken, indicate that you’ve shown proof of vaccination. A QR code was required while Greenwood Davis was there. New rules will make it easier for foreigners to get one too.Heather Greenwood Davis/The Globe and Mail

Proof of vaccination isn’t required on trains. Masks, on the other hand, are and ticket checkers reprimand a couple for wearing theirs on their chins, noses and mouths exposed. Hopping on and off trains I feel the old fatigue return. On for the train ride, off when we exit the station. And what to do when the stations are semi-open air? No one seems to know, with some keeping their masks in place, and others removing them.

I soon learn that each hotel is making their own rules. On arrival at the Suvretta House in St. Moritz there is no bouncer, but before my room key is provided, the QR code on my test result is scanned and masks are required outside my guest room. The same is true at La Reserve Eden au Lac when I return to Zurich five days later.

Thursday

Test three happens in Bad Ragaz. The on-site medical clinic at my hotel makes it convenient and tilting my head back for the rapid test while exhaling through my mouth (a tip from a colleague) makes the process less painful. By the time I sit down to breakfast I have my negative result and another 48 hours to play with.

At dinner, I’m joined by Mark Stalder, PR manager for the Grand Resort Bad Ragaz, who points out that the property, which is home to three hotels and more than seven eateries, is too big, with too many exits, to effectively implement a bouncer strategy. Instead, my QR code functions like a multiple-entry ticket.

I have to show it to eat in a restaurant, to use the thermal waters or to swim and I must wear a mask in between. In theory, I could book a room without a code but would be limited to room service and an outdoor pool. Another point to consider: Swiss rules do not require mandatory staff vaccination. It explains why staff are masked.

There are other bumps that tourists will want to keep in mind. When I head to St. Gallen to see the famed Abbey library, I instinctively quicken my step to beat a large tour group to the ticket counter. It was a good move. The days where their guide could quickly flash a pass and usher them through are over. They each have to line up individually to show their code and ID. It easily leads to frustration, which shows on the face of the guide, who continuously checks his watch.

Saturday

Test No. 4 is in Vevey. On check in at the Grand Hotel de Lac, my code gets me a white ribbon bracelet that tells the world I’m “COVID clean.” (At Victoria Jungfrau Grand Hotel & Spa the wristband changes colour daily to thwart copycats.) But this morning I’ll need to get another test in order to keep it. The hotel has organized for a medic for hotel guests (“Pop down in your bathrobe!” I’m told), but a mix-up means I’ll need to travel to neighbouring Montreux, a 10-minute cab ride away. By now the test feels rote. Thirty minutes later, as I’m enjoying a tea at Villa Le Lac Le Corbusier, a UNESCO recognized architectural gem, I barely remember I’ve had it. But onward travel to Denmark and returning home means three more tests, ranging in cost from free (a rapid test at the Billund airport) to more than $200. An added expense? Without a doubt. Worth it to feel the freedom of travel? For me: Absolutely.

One last note: The rules are always evolving. The latest from Switzerland: “Switzerland is open for fully vaccinated Canadians. Neither a test nor quarantine are required upon arrival,” Switzerland Tourism Canada director Pascal Prinz explains in an e-mail. “In a transition period until Oct. 24, a simple proof/receipt of vaccination by the Canadian authorities is sufficient. Thereafter, the Swiss cantons will provide a portal for guests vaccinated abroad (including Canadians) to be able to receive a Swiss vaccination certificate. The portal is expected to be operational by Oct. 24, 2021.”

The writer’s travels were sponsored in part by Switzerland Tourism. The organization did not review or approve the article prior to publication.