Why transforming the travel industry now will safeguard our future

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Why transforming the travel industry now will safeguard our future

Lauren Aste, Executive Vice President & Chief Legal Officer, CWT

When we think of the adventure of travel, we think of the exhilaration of arriving in a new city, with body clock still set to a prior time zone; you are instantly met by new smells, climate, and excitement as you realize that navigating to your final destination will depend on your best creative interpretation of ordinary looking signs in a local language you don’t understand.

What is ordinary suddenly becomes challenging.  And what is challenging usually involves risk.  On some level, risk is inherent to travel and is what makes it so thrilling– Will I get the deal that I’ve travelled half-way around the world to pitch for?  Will I make my connecting flight or be re-routed through a surprise city?  Will my luggage arrive with me or will I be sampling local fashion for tomorrow’s meeting?

Over the last year, the risk profile for travel has become vastly different as our world essentially “locked down” in a collective fight against a global pandemic. The response took different forms by country with some keeping borders open, some offering “red” and “green” lists for incoming travellers, and some issuing strict border closures.  Travellers were faced with calculating the risk of getting COVID before or during travel, of local laws changing to disrupt travel plans and of cancellations due to border closures.

The dial on the risk of contracting COVID has been significantly turned down with the rollout of vaccines in many countries which is a positive step for the global economy, offering hope for the travel industry. The risk has also been reduced with the advent of various initiatives to unlock global travel that harness technology to allow individuals to share health data in exchange for a “green light” to travel.  This technology comes in the form of digital health passes, which are leading the way on how we look at a safe return to travel. 

At least 20 digital health pass initiatives are currently underway with a goal of safely and efficiently validating health information from travellers to give them the green light to board flights and arrive at their destinations without quarantine.  These platforms have been designed by stakeholders in the travel ecosystem, from airlines to industry organizations to NGOs, all with the goal of getting travellers back on the road in a safe and efficient way.

While the innovation supporting the design of these platforms is impressive, it is of paramount importance that we have international protocols that allow these different technology platforms to speak to each other in a common way so it’s easy for travellers to use without them having to duplicate efforts for different legs of a single journey.  The need for international standards and interoperability are particularly important given the already existing patchwork of national privacy legislation against which these platforms will need to perform.

Global travel by its nature involves the sharing and transfer of data across borders.  The advent of tools whose primary purpose is to validate traveller health data will need to be considered carefully from a privacy perspective. 

The willingness of travellers to cede their data is likely to be correlated to how much they want to travel, and after more than a year in lockdown, the willingness of people to “opt in” to share personal medical information – in the form of a vaccination certificate or PCR test -- may be greater and increasingly seen as a simple cost of travel.

While the experience of the last year has slowed us down physically, paradoxically, it has created what can only be described as a time-lapse video for digital transformation, accelerating how we interact via cashless transactions, door-to-door deliveries, and virtual meetings among many other examples.  And digital transformation in travel is very much a part of this evolution, as our industry engages in a race to develop tools to keep travellers safe.

The good news is that these initiatives which are primarily driven at solving a health concern will ultimately help us move to a more seamless travel experience, leveraging technology to a point where it is conceivable that travel may become a paperless exercise from start to finish, and ultimately reduce the risk not only for COVID but of other contagious diseases – be they national, regional or global – that can be managed efficiently through the new tools being developed today.

While the COVID pandemic has been a set-back, some medical experts will say that this is not the “big one”. According to the Eco Health Alliance, 75% of newly emerging diseases are zoonotic (transmitted between animals and humans) and -  like SARS and Covid-19 -spread fast. The more we can transform our travel industry today through use of technology, the better prepared we will be to react to any future pandemic.

Until then, while the COVID crisis has made us think about risk differently, it has accelerated the development of platforms for sharing health data so we can be responsible about how we travel.  While responsible business has largely been framed within the travel industry as reducing carbon footprint and supporting green initiatives, each of us doing our part to take responsibility for improving global public health is a new angle that we should each consider as we journey through what is an increasingly interconnected world.

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