Seamless travel, touchless borders — those concepts have been on the minds of border agency leaders worldwide for years. And even more so recently, given that travel over the past two years has been anything but seamless.

For many countries, international travel has restarted. But travellers are still subject to numerous tests and requests for health documentation before and after their arrivals and departures. But do these conditions that COVID-19 has imposed on travellers mean an end to the dream of seamless travel?

Some argue that we're never going back and at the moment, it seems hard to imagine travel ever being as easy as it was pre-pandemic. However, there is no reason to abandon the goals that the vision of frictionless travel set out to achieve.

From quick checks to lengthy processes

Digital identity has played a key role in the pursuit of this seamless vision. A traveller's known identity could be used to make passing through a border fast and easy. Border agents could devote their energies to spotting and detaining potentially harmful or criminal individuals. For the majority, travelling internationally would be very much like a domestic journey.

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The pandemic changed all that. Public safety now requires much more extensive and detailed checks on every traveller to ensure their health status. We are no longer focused on the 1% that qualify as “a person of interest” and spending minimal time with the 99% - now every person is a risk. Border controls that were taking seconds to process each passenger now require minutes. With a relatively limited flow of travellers, that may be acceptable. But when international travel returns to anything like its pre-pandemic volumes, lengthy checks on the border could mean very long delays for everyone.

So how can that be avoided? There are a lot of elements to consider.

  1. Adapting physical channels
    The first is the physical infrastructure at the borders. Airports, for example, were not designed to segregate flows of people into different zones. But with potential quarantines in place for travellers from some countries, that now has to be a consideration. And achieving the repurposing of physical space will require collaboration between multiple stakeholders: border agencies, airlines and airport operators.
  2. Digital identity+
    Digital identities, integrated with health information, will continue to play a key role. The process of verifying health status needs to start well before a traveller enters an airport. There's every reason to believe that most individuals with the pre-approved digital information covering their health status and identity should be able to pass rapidly through the necessary points of control. Just as border agencies have always focused on identifying and managing exceptions, that should also be the focus for safeguarding public health.

Working across the travel ecosystem

It's essential to have as much confirmation of identity and health status as possible, before travellers get to the borders. Achieving that is going to take significant cooperation across the ecosystem of border agencies, transport companies and operators. The ability to share information — as close to real-time as possible — will become more important to manage exceptions, so that for most travellers the journeys flow as smoothly as possible.

As border agencies and other travel stakeholders adapt, re-open borders and get travel flowing again, it's essential that they take the opportunity to create greater resilience into new systems and approaches. No one could have predicted the sudden and dramatic impacts that COVID-19 had on how the world travels. But it should provide a wake-up call that the unpredictable can (and likely will) happen again. Being better prepared should mean that the goal of seamless travel remains on track, if just a little delayed.

I would love to hear whether you think we can get back to the vision of seamless travel. Reach out to me.

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Gerco Landman

Senior Manager – Consulting, Public Service, Australia & New Zealand