The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted every segment of the global economy, but none more so than the travel and tourism sector. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization’s (UNWTO) dashboard, there were 1 billion fewer international tourist arrivals in 2020 compared to the previous year and a total of 100 to 120 million direct tourism jobs at risk. Unfortunately, this trend is continuing as restrictions to international travel persist and variants like Delta spread. For many countries, there is a tension between the need to restore their tourism economy and the imperative to protect public health.
According to a study by the Brookings Institution, the share of a country’s GDP accounted for by tourism-related activities was the most important predictor of a growth shortfall in 2020 caused by the COVID-19 crisis, even in places where the pandemic itself had a limited public health impact. The study states that tourism-dependent economies such as “Grenada and Macao had very few recorded COVID cases in relation to their population size and no COVID-related deaths in 2020—yet their GDP contracted by 13 percent and 56 percent, respectively.” Generally, tourism-dependent economies were forced to borrow more from abroad and reduce spending. Many were also unable to mount an aggressive fiscal response. With the advent of vaccines, however, international travel finally has the opportunity to bounce back, if transmission can be kept in check. An important tool for achieving this balance is proof of COVID-19 status (vaccination, negative test, or recovery). Yet, the verification of this health data raises concerns about individual data privacy rights. It also creates technical and regulatory challenges given paper-based vaccination cards and the wide variety of organizations and businesses that need access to the data.
Trust frameworks at the country and global levels go a long way to addressing these challenges. These are essentially a collection of technical specifications, policies, and interoperability criteria on which the public can rely as mechanisms and agreements for protecting personal data. Global actors such as the World Health Organization (WHO) have released specifications that provide countries with recommendations for establishing a trust architecture at the national level. The Good Health Pass Collaborative (a project of ID2020, a non-profit organization that sets standards for equitable and secure digital records and ID) has also brought together more than 125 global companies and organizations to define principles and standards for digital health passes aimed at restoring international travel and restarting the global economy. This month saw the launch of the Good Health Pass Interoperability Blueprint, which proposes a new set of interoperability specifications to allow airlines and governments to verify travelers’ COVID-19 status, while simultaneously ensuring that core principles (e.g., privacy, security, user-control, and equity) are protected. If broadly accepted, the standards proposed will help create a transparent, safe, and seamless process for the industry. A rebound in global travel and tourism depends on the success of initiatives like this one, and global leadership is urgently needed to make it happen.