31 Mar 2021: The Year of Safe Travel?
For decades, humans forecasted the year 2020 to be a milestone year for civilization. And indeed, it was one albeit for all the wrong reasons. For the travel, tourism, and hospitality industry, 2020 was the worst year on record since the 9/11 attacks of 2001. Global travel crippled in 2020 due to the rapid transmission of COVID-19, resulting in countries shutting their borders with minimal or no notice whatsoever.
A year since the global pandemic was declared, the travel industry now finds itself in a stage of partial recovery. The path of recovering to pre-pandemic business, however, will not be easy. During this time, suppliers are trialed with novel regulatory requirements, including a slew of health and cleanliness protocols to safeguard travelers and their staff. As suppliers grapple to enact new initiatives, there already exists travelers who either require to travel for essential work, business, leisure, or simply those who are now eligible to travel under bilateral travel bubble arrangements.
Notwithstanding the reasons to travel, government authorities and local communities are at risk of exposing themselves to travelers. Various destinations are challenged with aspects such as monitoring quarantine restrictions, in-destination testing, contact tracing, and lack of social distancing protocols. As we have seen time–and–time again, from the recent summer break in Miami to the rise in the COVID-19 outbreak in Dubai, the failure to abide by regulations results in shutdowns, thereby directly impacting the travel industry.
SUPPLIERS STEP FORWARD
For the travel industry to succeed in 2021 and beyond, suppliers need to closely collaborate with local, state, and federal governments on standard operating procedures. Even as a sizable share of the industry is now accustomed to pre-requisites such as testing requirements, suppliers hold the key in communicating local regulations to travelers. Suppliers should not turn a blinds eye towards travelers who appear to take these initiatives for granted.
Furthermore, suppliers should reassess how best to evolve their physical infrastructure to accommodate travelers’ expectations and make them less anxious. For example, several airlines now maintain a vacant middle seat or at least offer a bookable middle seat for travelers who desire in-flight social distancing. Similarly, various lodging providers are adopting cool-off periods in between guest stays, and cruises are piloting RFID bands to trace traveler movement onboard. While the risk of transmission cannot be completely ruled out, such novel precautions could create a safer environment for travelers.
Needless to say, these initiatives cannot be rolled-out in isolation. In addition to working alongside local authorities, suppliers are also adopting digital solutions which could streamline the new initiatives into their operational and finance workflows.
FOSTER ETHICAL TRAVELLING
Even as travelers are returning to the shore, the looming question that remains is whether travel is necessary or not? Obviously, our industry would find itself deeper in the mud if it maintained a hard line on ethical travel. So the next best stance could be to adhere to safe travel principles. With airlines and airports now streamlining their processes to alleviate travel anxiety, travelers still need to be mindful that they are solely responsible for their own safety.
With the recent surge in infection cases as a direct result of relaxing travel restrictions worldwide, some governments are now taking extreme measures to curtail non-essential travel. For example, travelers now departing the U.K. are mandated to fill in a travel declaration form to evaluate their criticality of travel. We envision more countries to adopt similar outbound travel declaration forms, in addition to the existing passenger locator form for arrivals to restrict heavy traveler movement and potentially identify travelers who have visited blacklisted countries or regions in the recent past.
THE ROLE OF TRAVEL INDUSTRY AS A WHOLE
Where does the travel industry go from here? Besides the continued desire to simplify the travel experience, the industry should step forward to support the authorities by introducing the risk assessment approach. Not all travelers and their health status are alike. We have already discussed at length how health passports could discriminate against travelers in the near-term. Equally, it is impractical to view all travelers through the same lens and make each traveler serve long quarantine periods – which clearly is a deterrent to many. While solutions such as health passports could lay a foundational framework in that direction, the industry must be cognizant that there needs to be additional verification and authentication layers to assess travelers individually rather than a collective.
For the first time in years, the industry has the opportunity to create and adopt a semi-automated monitoring system. Solutions that can offset the struggles of manual and biased assessment of authorities, while providing a smooth experience to travelers are the need of the hour. While one cannot argue with the risk of exposure during travel, gaps in authentication, and the leakages in-destination today, it is only through the collective efforts of the industry, the government, and technology providers that the industry could reboot responsibly rather than the knee-jerk reactions of today.