What is required for the new normal of crossing borders while living with Covid is government coordination, user experience, simplicity, and accessibility when it comes to registering and sharing data. The best countries with the smartest, most streamlined approaches will win out.
Colin Nagy, a marketing strategist, writes this opinion column for Skift on hospitality and business travel. On Experience dissects customer-centric experiences and innovation across the luxury sector, hotels, aviation, and beyond. He also covers the convergence of conservation and hospitality.
You can read all of his writing here.
In the before times, I had the privilege of crossing borders nearly friction-free. I had signed up for a few of the Global Entry-like services in the countries I frequented—the UK, for instance, let U.S. travelers register with its Border Force, and in turn, get to use the resident lines.
In Dubai and Abu Dhabi, you could pre-register for the e-gates. Same with Singapore. Mexico had a shaky, but somewhat serviceable, Viajero Confiable system. Most of the awkward and clunky border crossings were to be expected based on locale, or places that required visas to enter. I wasn’t bothered to spend a bit more time in line to get into Zimbabwe or Lebanon.
Now, it is as if the world has gone back in time, before vaunted technology was supposed to ease the way for travelers. The pandemic has exposed the failures of that promise.
The amount of paperwork required to cross a border is stifling. Some are easier than others—Costa Rica and Mexico let you use an app called Verifly to pre-authorize your documents, negative tests, and vaccination certificates. But it is still an arduous process and one where the average traveler is left struggling to catch up at the airport, clogging up the check-in. Also, gone are the days of mobile boarding passes for international travel and bypassing any departure queues. Everything today requires face-to-face interaction, which, in times of staff cuts, means that many of these places are critically understaffed even as travel in some places comes roaring back.
Widespread vaccine adoption was seen as the thing to kick start vital tourism to countries that desperately need the revenue. But the reopening is being built on a hodgepodge of systems that don’t seem to be speaking to one another, with hastily contracted IT. All the while many of these countries have done performative gestures for perception and PR: think airport cleaning robots and hygiene theater.
To be very clear, this is not whining from an entitled traveler. As a wave of safely vaccinated travelers returns to the road, the technology is not where it needs to be for long-term success, full-stop. Covid isn’t going away anytime soon, and while countries certainly have the right to have safeguards to protect their populations, there needs to be a world-class effort within national tech and IT teams to remove friction and not create additional layers of bureaucratic pain. Consistency, coordination, great UX, and accessibility are really the keywords for success here. Right now it is a jumble of different ministries not talking to one another, built atop a rats nest of slapped together tech and additional paper riders.
And this is not just happening in developing countries: an eagle-eyed traveler recently shared his observations on landing in a normally smooth and functional Denmark: “It’s truly wild how divergent/dysfunctional the credentialing system is; on my trip to Copenhagen recently I passed through 4x border controls and not only did each one differ from the others, but not one of them conscribed to publicly available information,” he said.
Over the course of 10-plus border crossings recently, I’ve witnessed a lot of chaos. I recently landed in Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, where travelers needed to (i) show their pre-paid forms for the rapid test (ii) show their pre-arranged visa forms (iii) take a rapid test, and then clear immigration. Add a network outage just as a KLM 787 disgorged its passengers onto the tarmac, this went about as well as you could predict.
For a country that benefits significantly from the tourism industry, think adventurers heading into the bush, to people trying to summit the nearby Kilimanjaro, the initial experience was a bit rough, especially for those in the back of the line. Later, to enter the recently reopened Doha in Qatar, I had to pre-send vaccination cards and negative Covid tests procured in Tanzania, fill out several forms, and wait for authorization. At the airport, there were additional riders not previously disclosed: health attestation sheets, as well as the need to download an app and pick up a Qatari sim-card on arrival to validate everything with a one-time password. Their Ehteraz app will track movements and location, turning yellow if you are suspected to be in contact with anyone tested positive, thus limiting entrance to public spaces, restaurants, and cafes. And who knows what other data is being collected. Perhaps a burner phone for the new surveillance states is the new must-have accessory?
Government Coordination, Anyone?
Again, many of these slapped-together systems are forgivable for now. But they are a ticking time bomb that needs to be polished and re-worked urgently.
What is actually required for the new normal of crossing borders while living with Covid is government coordination, user experience, simplicity, and accessibility when it comes to registering and sharing data. The best countries with the smartest, most streamlined approaches will win out. Those that can’t get their act together will develop a reputation for such, and these places that make it hard to visit, or cumbersome, will lose out on the impending wave of travel.
Just like excessive regulation can strangle a business, shoddy IT, reams of paperwork, and zero coordination can strangle a country’s tourism recovery.
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Photo credit: Border crossings and newly required paperwork and red tape have made global travel untenable. CASEZY / Getty Images