Courtesy of Butter Bandanas
Courtesy of Yotel Singapore Orchard Road
Health passports. Robots that clean airports. Masks worn . . . everywhere. The future is now.
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COVID-19 hit at a time when the travel industry was already experiencing growing pains—just look to Venice’s overtourism problem and the #flightshame movement. Then coronavirus threw the world a curveball and prompted a very real reckoning. Since then, the question of “When will travel recover?” has slowly morphed into “How will travel recover?” And what improvements can be made to reimagine the way we move around the world? Here’s a look at the possible future of travel.
While masks have been an accessory in Asia since at least the 2002 SARS outbreak—“not wearing masks in Hong Kong is like not wearing pants,” quote Vox—the rest of the world has only just started to embrace mask fashion and #maskbragging (showing off your new mask on social media). When the coronavirus outbreak first took hold, masks pretty much came in two styles—surgical and N95 respirator. But in two months, we’ve not only seen masks become a requirement on all major American airlines as well as on international carriers like Lufthansa and Swiss, but we’ve also witnessed a proliferation of mask design and engineering. There are silk embroidered masks from the indigenous Otomi people in Central Mexico; matching dog scarf and human mask combo sets from Butter Bandanas; and antimicrobial masks made from Nanocomposites and copper additives developed by Copper3D. Expect to wear masks on public transportation and in crowds for months to come.
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Before there was talk of the “immunity passport,” there was the Carte Jaune, the personal yellow health card that listed which vaccinations you received and when. Now, we’re entering an age of health credentialing, vaccination data chips, and wearables that detect infectious diseases—and the race to develop new tech has entered hyperdrive. Stanford is working with Fitbit to create smart watches, rings, and clothes that may predict the onset of COVID-19 (early results are promising). Some individual countries have even come up with wearable schemes. Liechtenstein plans to issue biometric bracelets to all of its citizens this fall that detect early signs of infection. The bracelets will also monitor COVID-19 in real time and keep track of the number of new cases arising in the alpine principality of 38,000. Meanwhile, the U.K. tech firm Onfido is in talks with the British government about developing a facial biometrics system to link health credentials to identities. The WHO issued a brief in April questioning the idea of COVID-19 “immunity” without proper evidence, but several countries like smaller, more vulnerable Caribbean nations may at least require health certificates on arrival.
Even prior to COVID-19, touchless technology was becoming more prevalent, be it smartphone apps like Apple Pay, touchless hotel keys that open rooms and operate elevators, and QR codes that lead to restaurant menus and customs and immigrations forms. In Japan, even greater advancements have been made: Nippon Electric Company (NEC) has developed a “One ID” check for Tokyo-Narita Airport that can authenticate identity even while passengers wear masks. It uses a facial recognition artificial intelligence (AI) engine called NeoFace that’s expected to increase the efficiency of clearing customs and reduce the number of airport personnel.
Shopping has also been sped up by Amazon, which launched its Just Walk Out service at several airport kiosks recently; as at Amazon Go stores, the service automatically detects the goods in buyers’ carts and bills the customer. In Japan, Docomo and Sony began testing cashless payment technology that doesn’t even require a phone. Shoppers merely stand in front of the register to complete a purchase.
On May 4, the U.S. Travel Association released a report titled Travel in the New Normal encouraging all travel-related companies to adopt touchless solutions to ticketing, check-in, and identification. The same day, the National Restaurant Association released a 10-page COVID-19 reopening guide written with input from the FDA, CDC, and EPA, encouraging touchless hand-sanitizer dispensers and urging contactless technology to support payment and in-app-ordering.
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In mid-April, Emirates became the first airline to rapid test all of its passengers for coronavirus before allowing them to board for a flight to Tunisia. “We are working on plans to extend this to other flights,” Adel Al Redha, Emirates chief operating officer, said in a statement. Hong Kong was the world’s first airport to introduce mandatory COVID-19 testing. Passengers arriving from high-risk areas were given rapid tests, with results available within eight hours, and were provided with mandatory waterproof wristbands printed with a QR code for tracking. (The airport also employed full-body sanitation pods it is testing on staff.) With airlines and airports instituting testing, will cruise ships, large sports and cultural venues, and luxury hotels follow? Temperature screenings will be the simplest first step. Some hotels, like Switzerland’s Le Bijou, have special packages offering in-suite coronavirus tests—for a price. The world may not be ready for this, but expect a lot of luxury hotels and spas to offer such personalized tests, treatments, and health vaccinations in the future. Soneva’s two Maldives properties will have coronavirus testing systems for guests on arrival at the Soneva lounge in the Male airport.
Speaking of spas: They may be for individual use in the future. “In June when we reopen, guests will be able to book one of our six spas and pools exclusively on an hourly basis,” says Dietmar Mueller-Elmau, owner of Bavarian spa and resort Schloss Elmau.
In the age of coronavirus, crowds, queues, and unchecked human-to-human contact are a health risk. To minimize that risk, will room service and reception robots, Roomba-like disinfecting devices, and drone luggage delivery become the future of travel? In Asia, hotels have especially warmed to the idea. Hong Kong’s L’hotel Group launched room-service robots, while Singapore’s Yotel gave us Yoshi and Yolanda, robotic self-check-in machines that have replaced traditional human receptionists. There’s also a wave of automated disinfecting robots manning airports, like Pittsburgh Airport’s UV-ray armed disinfecting robots and Hong Kong Airport’s virus-killing bots. And perhaps other airlines will follow the lead of Qatar Airways and Doha Hamad International Airport, where disinfection robots will join airport staff donning Smart Screening Helmets that provide contactless temperature readings and “use augmented reality to screen travelers.”
While some national borders like Argentina have announced they will remain closed to nonessential travelers until September, some are now touting the concept of “travel bubbles.” Countries with similarly reduced coronavirus caseloads—New Zealand and Australia; Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania; and Switzerland, Austria, France, and Germany—will open to intra-country travel as early as June. Travel bubbles won’t give us the same freedom we had just a few months ago, but they will allow increased mobility and perhaps create a whole new series of overlooked backyard destinations and reignite tourism in smaller communities.