It has probably been repeated to death by now: Travel as we know it will never return to normalcy. This is something which Mieke de Schepper, managing director (Asia Pacific) of global travel technology company Amadeus, knows full well. However, she isn’t quite ready to throw the towel in just yet. Technology, she believes, will be the way that the travel industry moves forward. And normal? Well, forget normal — this is where the tide turns for travel.

For Singaporeans who have gotten used to enjoying year-end holidays trips, last December is perhaps a month to remember, albeit with little fondness. Trapped on this little island, unable to travel abroad, we browsed through our photo albums, looking back longingly at vacations of yesteryear, when traipsing across the globe was the norm.

At the cusp of the new year, many are hopeful that the roll-out of the Covid-19 vaccines would bring much-needed relief to the battered and bruised economy. For those in the travel industry, among the hardest-hit, relief certainly cannot come soon enough.

Yet if normalcy is what travellers and the industry expect to return to, it may be a long time in coming. However, technology and technological solutions in travel will absolutely be the best way to prepare and move forward in this “new normal”, says Mieke de Schepper, managing director, Asia Pacific, of global travel technology company Amadeus.

Unprecedented times

By now, we know the statistics well: According to the latest issue of the United Nations World Travel Organisation (UNWTO) World Tourism Barometer, international tourist arrivals (overnight visitors) fell by 72% between January to October 2020, compared to the same period in 2019.

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The decline in the first 10 months of the year represents 900 million fewer international tourist arrivals, compared to the same period in 2019, and this translated into a loss of US$935 billion ($1.2 trillion) in export revenues from international tourism — a shocking 10 times more than the loss in 2009, when the world faced a global economic crisis.


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In fact, the worst-hit was Asia (where the virus first emerged, specifically in Wuhan, China), where the region saw a staggering 82% decrease in arrivals in January to October 2020, compared to the Middle East with a 73% decline, Africa with a 69% drop, and a fall of 68% in Europe and the Americas. “The travel industry, of course, is going through absolutely unprecedented times. It’s not the first time [the industry] has gone through a crisis; it went through a crisis in 9/11, but this is now a truly global crisis.

While we have a business model that works really well because it’s variable, the pandemic has also impacted us quite a bit,” says De Schepper. “But we believe that technology will be absolutely critical to overcome this crisis and to rebuild confidence for travellers because as Barry Diller [chairman of IAC and of travel company Expedia] has said: Where there’s life, there’s travel.”

De Schepper says it is inevitable that people will want to travel again, and Amadeus, as the world’s largest travel technology company, is looking towards empowering and enabling its partners to recover from this crisis.

“People want to travel, people want to experience and to explore. This is just a temporary setback, and we’ll get back to it; and so we’re focusing very much now on how, with technology and with our solutions, we can enable our partners, both on the airline side and the hotel side, and also our agencies,” she adds. “So we are working with our agencies to see what kind of technologies we can implement at this time to help them recover from this crisis better.”

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Travel safe again

Amadeus has also recently concluded a study with research firm Censuswide to learn about travellers’ top concerns, and what types of technology would help them feel safe, secure and comfortable enough to help spur the recovery of the sector.

Conducted among 6,000 travellers across France, Germany, India, Singapore, the UK and the US, the study found that technology plays a crucial role in supporting recovery, as over four in five (84%) travellers said that technology would increase their confidence to travel in the next 12 months by addressing concerns about mixing with crowds, social distancing and physical touchpoints. Survey results showed, among others, that travellers would feel more comfortable with more contactless or mobile payment options to minimise contact.

“[Respondents] want more of an automated, contactless experience in travel, specifically to avoid having to touch things, but also to be able to do things digitally and make changes without requiring a physical interaction with somebody — especially now because people are expecting more flexibility as things are more unpredictable,” adds De Schepper.

For instance, at the beginning of the pandemic, many airlines were overwhelmed with constant calls about flight changes and cancellations, and Amadeus worked with them to help streamline and automate a lot of the processes as well, says De Schepper.

Other findings from the survey are:

• 42% of travellers say mobile applications that provide on-trip notifications about localised outbreaks and changes to government guidance would help boost their confidence to travel;

• 34% of those who have concerns about travelling in light of Covid-19 say biometrics (i.e. facial or voice recognition) that enable check-in, pass-through security and boarding without the need for physical checks would make them more likely to travel;

• 33% of travellers agree they would like one universal digital traveller identification on their phone that includes all necessary documentation and immunity status, that meant they only had to prove it once.

Notably, the survey found that technology receptiveness and preferences differ by country and demographic, underscoring the importance of personalisation in gaining traveller trust.

For example, almost half (47%) of Baby Boomers said they would need to be able to socially or physically distance throughout the journey in order to feel comfortable travelling, compared to fewer than three in 10 (27%) of Generation Z.

Over half (52%) of travellers in Singapore who have concerns about travelling selected contactless experiences at hotels as a technology that would make them more likely to travel. Across the board, notes De Schepper, travellers wanted more tech, less contact.

They wanted more flexibility on changes and cancellations, fewer passengers on the plane, effective testing, tracing and tracking, and high visibility of hygiene and sanitisation.

“These technologies were there, but they have not always been fully adopted; not everybody saw the importance or the need for it. Airports and airlines have always had technology to change tickets or use touchless solutions. So the things which we’re implementing a lot right now — it is really about an acceleration of adoption of some of the technologies that were already around,” she adds.

One technology that will become far more important, especially right now, is “virtual interlining” — systems on the back end which connects different airline routes for passengers to travel on multiple carriers on a single itinerary.

“It is much more difficult now for travellers to search for route combinations that get them from point A to B, seeing as there are fewer routes and more restrictions now. We are able to find combinations of different routes for people to get from A to B in the fastest, and the most cost-efficient way,” she adds.

“New technologies that we think are especially relevant in this period are those that also inform travellers about changes as they happen.” “There’s lots of changes happening, so it’s about having that information at hand; do I need to quarantine? What kind of documentation is required? And that information is still very dispersed, and so we’re trying to collect that information,” she says.

“We’re working together with organisations like the International Air Transport Association [IATA] to really bring that information together to travel agencies, and also to travellers. It’s going to be a lot about partnering and collaborating across every element of the travel industry to make travel happen again.”


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Future of travel

For now, however, De Schepper says, travel is still mostly domestic, and will continue to change and be fluid.

“Because borders are still closed, travel is now in domestic markets. China is actually almost back — domestically — to 2019 levels. In India, a lot of domestic travellers are back even though they still have a lot of cases, as people need to move around,” she says. “So there’s a lot of volume back in the system. We’ve seen that Australia has opened up [recently]. And globally, I would say it never went down as much as it went down in Asia Pacific. In the US, there has been continuous travelling; in Europe, especially in the summer, there was a lot of travelling as well.”

Long-haul international travel will still take a long time to recover, she adds. “It never went completely away because some industries continue to travel, for example, when you look at the maritime and the mining industries, they have to continue to travel. So it’s not completely gone; just very slow. We do foresee there’s more bilateral agreements that will come up to get travel started again.

“It’s going to be a bit of a ‘one step forward, two steps back’ thing. With the vaccines being rolled out now, and many countries getting more control over the numbers of cases, I think it will help travel get started again.” She is hopeful, however, that travel will come back — it’s just going to take longer than we’d hoped.

“It will take until perhaps 2024 before travel will return back to the levels seen in 2019. Some parts will recover faster — we see leisure coming back faster, mainly visiting family and friends because there’s a lot of pent-up demand for that, and essential business travel is still continuing,” she says.