To travel internationally shortly you won’t just need a paper passport; you’ll need a digital one. This will be a smartphone app—secured by blockchain protocols—that certifies you’re not infected with COVID-19.
This is one of the takeaways from a webinar held on June 5 with Cristina Del Río Fresen of the Canary Islands. The leader of the Ministry of Tourism’s Global Tourism Safety Lab told travel industry executives and journalists on the Zoom call that a July flight from Madrid to the Canary Islands will be a world first: it will test a digital health passport app that will use data from health authorities to certify that travelers are free of COVID-19.
The privately-developed Health iCard App—or Hi+ Card—has received the backing of the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). The organization’s Digital Innovation and Transformation department has been working on internet-based tools to reduce the pandemic’s impact on the world’s tourism industry.
The app—compliant with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) on data security—was created by Madrid-based Tourism Data Driven Solutions, or TDDS, in association with the Spanish-government-backed Air Institute, which specializes in computer science and artificial intelligence.
Blockchain protocols will “avoid the possibility of false profiles being created or medical records being manipulated,” said Antonio López de Ávila, CEO of TDDS. His company was working on the Hi+ Card before the pandemic, and accelerated its development as lockdowns started to be imposed in Europe.
The Canary Islands are a Spanish archipelago located 62 miles west of Morocco, Africa. Also known as the Canaries, the islands are heavily dependent on tourists, who are responsible for generating 35% of the region’s GDP and 40% of the island’s jobs. In a normal year—this is not a normal year—13 million tourists travel to the Canaries from outside Spain, including five million from the U.K.
Spain reopens to international tourism in July. Compulsory quarantine measures for arrivals in the Canaries finish on June 7.
(Ironically, travelers from the U.K. might be excluded from travel within the EU when general travel is allowed again. Ironic because Brexit Brits wanted to “take control of borders” but the Brexiter government left borders open during the pandemic enabling international travelers to arrive without going into quarantine as was made compulsory in many other countries. Experts say this led to the U.K. becoming a global hot-spot for COVID-19—those wishing to leave the British Isles soon may find it becomes a whole lot more difficult, with or without a “Brexit blue” passport.)
While contactless biometric boarding is likely to become a norm with all airlines when flights take off in earnest again—and passengers had better get used to four-hour check-in queues, temperature screening, disinfection tunnels and in-flight sanitation sprays (“only those ‘fit to fly’ will be allowed to enter,” predicted the airline strategy firm SimpliFlying, in its “Rise of Sanitised Travel” report)—it’s the ability to digitally certify being free of COVID-19 that could prove the key to future cross-border travel.
Fresen said on the Zoom call that she was in charge of a “global laboratory for safe tourism,” and that the world would be watching the July flight. It will trial the digital health passport app.
“We want to make everything safe from a health perspective,” she said. This is especially important for the Canaries because the islands have remained relatively unscathed by the virus, with “only” 155 lives lost among the 2 million residents.
Fresen does not think the roll-out of the digital health app will lead to a stampede on flights to the islands, or anywhere else for that matter.
“[Tourism] will recover only gradually,” she said.
The July flight, backed by UNWTO and billed as a “validation” exercise, will test the Hi+ Card app and monitor how people feel about international air travel before a vaccine has been developed against COVID-19.
Want to book space on this flight? You can’t, it’s only for the national and international press, travel agencies, heads of tourism companies, and UNWTO staff. However, if all goes well, it could be a fillip to flights in general.
UNWTO’s Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili said that “in these exceptional times, in which the COVID-19 pandemic has shaken the world economy and threatened our tourism sector, innovation becomes the cornerstone of the recuperation.”
He added: “Trips will no longer be as they were before. Rather, they will become safer and more sustainable, to continue providing benefits to nations and communities.”
Health has to come first, insisted Fresen. It is “vital to help humanity to fight against the virus,” she said.