International human mobility has been the driving force of economic growth and policy decisions for the tourism industry. However, the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated policy changes that explicitly limited mobility. Our research sought to examine whether closing borders to international tourists was related to the reduction in the number of COVID-19 fatalities, and the impact of country-level culturally accepted norms towards leadership in the implementation of these policy. This study builds on the call for further research on how tourism destinations plan for and respond to global crises and disasters. We used data from the World Bank and the GLOBE Project to test the direct effect of international tourist arrivals in 2019 on COVID-19 fatalities in 2020 and the moderating role of self-protective leadership on this relationship. Our findings supported our proposition that closing borders to tourists saved lives but self protective leadership is critical. In fact, a key contribution of our study is that attitudes towards leadership play an important role in the effectiveness of policy deployment during times of crisis; in particular, closing the border had a stronger impact in saving lives across countries where self-protective leadership is culturally acceptable and expected. Implications for destination management are also suggested.