International travel is an undeniable part of our lives. Whether it was work-related or leisurely time-off, it growingly became a familiar and frequent experience. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought this billion-dollar industry to an unprecedented halt.
The world shifted from flying among the clouds to surviving on the cloud! This set the stage for changes unlike any ever known. With over 90% of the world waiting to travel again, there is a considerable amount of onus on the industry to adopt to the new normal.
There’s a silver lining, though. In March, the World Travel and Tourism Council forecast that international travel could fall by up to 25% this year. But some regions – particularly the Middle East – are forecast to recover more rapidly, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. Middle East experts who recently convened for a virtual Arabian Travel Market (ATM) event agreed that the region’s tourism sector would quickly revive. The innovations that the industry will see during the recovery will certainly include digital innovations, not to minimize the average human contact, but to support travelers to carry out tasks remotely in order to avoid crowded places, like queues.
As borders open, here’s how we see a shift in several aspects of the travel process.
More time to plan
Planning a trip will possibly be far more detailed now - our search keywords and every move for our next journey will possibly be coded around caution, regulations, health and safety. Impromptu, international trips with little to no planning may be a miss for travellers in the near future. People will be far more cognisant of not only the destinations they choose for their next vacation, but will also prefer advanced bookings not just in accommodation but also for local movement.
We may see a reverse trend as travelers bank more on trusted brands and hospitality chains with set standards of sanitation and hygiene instead of local homestays and public transport. Augmented or Virtual Reality could also play a significant role in reassuring the traveller of the surroundings they choose and necessary safety precautions keeping their mind at ease and make informed decisions.
Along with the stay, there will also be a high adoption of digital alternatives while on the trip. For example, contactless payment through smartphones, wearables and near-field communication (NFC) enabled cards will see greater demand to avoid physical exchange of cash and the usual rush at forex booths. Location-based information services that could assist travellers with immediate medical support, quick reference directories, real-time local updates, etc. will also gain base.
Hello to more e-Gateways
With the reopening of essential domestic air travel, we can efficiently draw a roadmap for future international travel. Self-service kiosks, online check-ins, digital identification modes, etc. have been greatly encouraged for air travel lately. They ensure minimum human touchpoints which helos minimize the risk of infection. Though, sanitising touchscreens after each use may be an effort for service providers.
Travelers will also be encouraged to consider digital options in processing documentation when the borders open for international travel. Solutions such as eVisas and ePassport gates allow essential travel documents to be digitally processed without compromises on security.
The eVisa on Arrival digital solution, used by travellers to Thailand for example, is gaining popularity as it allows one to clear Visa On Arrival formalities at the destination airport, which is often a time-consuming process. Essentially, it enables the traveller to not just get visas remotely, but also reduce the turnaround timelines of the process.
On the other hand, ePassport gates that use facial recognition technology to verify the traveller’s identity against the data stored in the chip in their biometric passport will also help verify health risk beyond just security risk to the destination country. Global initiatives to ensure a smarter digitized traveler journey are also in play.
An interesting initiative ‘Known Traveller Digital Identity (KTDI)’ by World Economic Forum brings together a global consortium of individuals, governments, authorities, and the travel industry to enhance security in global travel. KTDI allows people to manage their own profile and collect digital ‘attestations’ of their personal data, consensually allowing them to decide what data to share and when. The more attestations a user shares, the better it is for authorities to process the travel in a seamless and smooth manner.
To summarize, self-service will be a huge part of our new normal in the time to come.
Other than the effort of travelling from one place to another, the way one chooses accommodation and the services available for travellers at the destinations are also set to change. Travellers are bound to be cognizant of their belongings and make sure their baggage and other personal items are sanitised as well. Ultraviolet disinfection tunnels may be an option at entry points to ensure safety.
There could also be a rise in IoT-enabled baggage and other travel essentials so that one can track their belongings and be mindful of the objects it comes in contact with. On the other hand, digital hotel room keys that can allow you access without having to wait at crowded receptions are also sure to gain popularity. Bookings on digital avenues that allow individuals to plan travel remotely have over the years become a popular choice, but now, the value of these is far greater and more essential to the traveler today.
The Middle East is a destination that is ready and looking forward to welcoming visitors. In the era to come, technology is surely set to be a strong influence on consumer behavior as it provides a smarter, faster and safer way to travel. It will be interesting to see how incumbent travel and hospitality brands compete with newer travel tech brands, and which of these manage to capture the consumer sentiment and best adapt to the new normal.
By Benjamin Boesch, Head – Digital and eCommerce, VFS Global