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What path should travel brands take in a partially vaccinated world?

Vaccinations and a return to ‘a new normal’ might be happening at different speeds across the world but Humphrey Ho, managing director of Hylink Digital believes brands need to be ready for this change.

In lieu of China initiating steps to create a vaccine passport while the rest of the world continues vaccinating, the rollout of the vaccine passport will have a tremendous impact on international travel resuming to some level of normalcy, because of this outbound Chinese travel and global travel will look much different in the latter half of 2021. Destination marketing organizations (DMOs) and National Tourism Organizations (NTOs) serving as a gateway to destinations will look different as well, as both tourism and travel brands having to adjust to the new ecosystem of a partially vaccinated world.

As someone who works within the travel and tourism industry, a few things will become apparent as the rest of the year plays out. A vaccine passport given in countries is called an international travel health certificate. Nations who are going to start issuing international travel health certificates or vaccine passports of any kind are confident that they can reciprocate travellers to China as well.

In doing so that helps in opening bilateral travel or opening for unrestricted. The current travel restrictions are basically a bilateral right, so you have a country that does not restrict or restricts the citizens of one country from travelling. If both sides have an international travel health certificate or a vaccine passport of any kind, and they both recognize it, that will open the discussion and dialogue for countries to have a path to reopening beyond that of a foreign affair or beyond that of a political discussion, one that is centred around healthy citizens ready to travel again.

The most important thing for DMO clients to understand is that in the United States, whether a vaccine passport or program is a national one or a regional one, it is important for DMOS and NTOs to understand all over the world which travel health certificate is accepted at the immigration and at the national level.

Given that every country is rolling out their own vaccine passport or travel health certificates, it means that a receiving DMO of inbound tourists needs to be very clear as to which passports they're allowed to receive in and process and typically that's left to the national level, to figure out, in terms of regional or state or city level DMOS.

One of the priorities that they're going to have to figure out is whether visitors start to increase back into their cities and towns. They are going to require as part of their municipal policies, whether they need to have users with their masks on. Having a travel vaccine passport to check into hotels, book a rental car, go to dining establishments, etc. They should be ready and actively working with both the host country, as well as the outbound country, in terms of connecting all the data sources that are necessary, so that their trade travel partners that are typically small businesses are ready to accept international travel health certificates.

Travel brands of all kinds are going to look forward to a vaccine passport or a health certificate. With intense challenges ahead, they're going to have to navigate vaccine passport checking, which is usually at the point of departure, as well as acceptance, which is usually at the point of arrival. Although airline partners are doing a great job with IATA standards and facilitating requirements in both departure and arrival ports of entry.

In terms of a vaccine passport, it gives a very clear path to re-opening for travel brands because there has always been a need, not only to rally and lobby their immigration officials to reopen borders, which falls under government PR.

Now, there is a clear path to accepting vaccine passports at the consumer level, which is a campaign and a timeline that they can control. For example, if you're a travel brand it wouldn't be a hard ask right now for you to accept, using your app to upload an image of your travel certificate, or like what they did to pivot during the COVID-19 crisis by offering COVID-19 testing, which is not something that a travel brand is. It's not part of its core services or products. Now they can offer the service of facilitating travel health certificate recognition at both the point of arrival and the point of departure. So potentially, a revenue source and a clear path to recovery for travel brands that can help their consumers, facilitate travel health certificates on both sides of the world again departure and arrival.

The question remains: do vaccine passports comply with confidentiality requirements in different countries? For example, a non-US airline carrying a vaccine passport information - do they have to be HIPAA compliant?

The challenge though remains 100% vaccination will not occur at the same time, or potentially ever, so how do travel brands deal with what will likely be a minority of people in multiple countries who do not get vaccinated?

Is it fair to exclude individuals from travelling, and when do we accept individuals who are not vaccinated back onto planes into hotels into rental cars and into restaurants because we serve to alienate a large portion of the global travel population based on the current rollout of vaccines?

For example, in Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa, and South America, where speeds are not as fast as in smaller countries or in countries that are more developed, such as the United States. That remains to be a situation because we should not alienate people based on their vaccination level. Before the pandemic, we weren't judging whether, whether people had their national vaccination cards, whether they travel. If travel brands step into this there may also be an element that is unseen, or not as effective every year. If it becomes like the flu that mutates every so often when, and where, does a vaccine passport become invalid?

Lastly, travel brands need to develop policies around this in conjunction with DMOS and NTOs. In developing policies against private brands, deciding and setting standards that are not congruent with national or international conventions, because that will keep the joys of travelling and sort of the benefits of travelling limited to an even smaller segment of people than it was prior to the pandemic. The biggest challenge for travel brands ahead is not being the one who dictates travel eligibility.

Humphrey Ho is MD of Hylink Digital.

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