Expert Opinion by Dr Steven McLauchlan – Senior Product Manager, Border Management at SITA
Transforming your visa operations is the first step towards seamless, digital journeys that generates growth in travel and tourism
In this article, we examine the role and value of electronic travel authorization systems – particularly Electronic Visas (eVisas) and Electronic Travel Authorizations (ETAs) – and how, with a modern approach, these capabilities strengthen border security, enhance the travel experience and boost economic growth in travel and tourism.
Electronic Visas (EVIASS) & Electronic Travel Authorizations (ETAS)
As the world recovers from the effects of a global pandemic – a public health crisis which closed borders, grounded aircraft, confined ships to port, and left billions of passengers unable to travel for work or leisure – now is the time to re-think old ways of working and adopt new working practices to drive growth in travel and tourism; and ensure borders are secure and capable of identifying risk at the earliest opportunity.
As the rise of electronic visa and travel authorization issuance continues against a sharp decline in issuing traditional visas – and, more broadly, the transformation to fully digital processes gathers pace – there is a risk of late adopters being left behind. Travellers have a choice of destinations, particularly for leisure travel. And choosing to travel to a particular country is determined, in part, by how easy it is to get there. If one country requires a visa applicant to send their passport to the embassy, arrange an interview and be issued with a paper- based visa label several weeks later, they run the risk of that traveler choosing instead to travel to a neighbouring country where they can apply and be issued with an eVisa or ETA, online or directly to their mobile phone, in a matter of minutes. Indeed, these countries and those which allow travellers to check-in, cross borders and board aircraft and cruise ships using just their digital identity, should expect to see strong growth in their travel and tourism economies as a result.
For the aviation sector alone, the global airline body, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), forecasts that passenger volumes will surpass pre-pandemic levels as early as 2024 when traveller numbers are expected to reach 4.0 billion. Managing that growth will be challenging for government control authorities responsible for visa and border operations. The time to transform from paper to digital, from old to new ways of working, is now.
Global Travel Landscape: Digitizing the Right to Travel
Firstly, all recognize the need to identify and manage risk as early and as far from the border as possible. Secondly, all apply near-identical categorizations of passengers seeking to cross their borders: (1) citizens / permanent residents; (2) visa nationals (i.e. passengers who require a visa to enter or transit through their territory); and (3) visa-exempt nationals (i.e. passengers who do not require a visa to enter or transit through their territory.
For many decades, governments all around the world have developed visa programs to issue a ‘right to travel’ for passengers seeking to gain entry to their country, whether for a short or long stay, for work or for leisure. Indeed, at the time, the only reliable way to manage risk away from the border, was to require nationals of certain countries (i.e. visa nationals) to apply for a visa at an embassy or consulate, have the authenticity of their document confirmed, provide answers to questions regarding the purpose of their travel, and ensure that passenger did not pose a risk to national security. This well-established method served us well. But the world – and certainly technology – has moved on. The future of travel is digital. And all travel and tourism business processes are slowly but surely transforming to leverage technology – mobile devices and biometrics in particular – and embrace new, modern digital ways of working. Both visa issuance and border control operations are already moving in this direction.
The past 20 years has seen Automated Border Control systems, which rely on verifying passenger’s identities using biometrics, deployed on every continent with ever-increasing volumes of passengers now able to use them each and every time they cross the border. In 2018, the United Nations global body for tourism, the UN World Tourism Organization (UN-WTO), reported that 10% of all visas issued were now electronic, up from just 2% six years before. In 2008, traditional paper- based visas accounted for 77% of visas issued globally. A decade later in 2018, they only accounted for 53% – with electronic visas and ‘visas upon arrival’ implemented in their place. The increase in electronic visa issuance, coupled with a decrease in traditional visa issuance, will only continue; and the pace of adoption will only accelerate. And for electronic travel authorizations, at least another 26 countries will implement these once the European Union’s ETIAS scheme is operationalized across the continent in 2023. In short, the old, traditional way of issuing paper-based label visas via embassies and consulates is on the decline. And the new way of issuing electronic travel authorizations and visas is on the rise. More and more countries are now purposefully moving towards fully digital processes that not only improve the visa issuance process, but also play a vital role in strengthening border security and driving growth in the country’s travel and tourism economy.
The increase in electronic visa issuance, coupled with a decrease in traditional visa issuance, will only continue; and the pace of adoption will only accelerate.
Why Transform? Why Now?
So, why should governments transform their visa operations; and why should they do it now?
Quite simply because transforming from old to new – from paper to digital processes –delivers a range of benefits to the country, including a significant boost to the country’s economy – something for which many governments are desperate after the pandemic brought whole sectors of their economy, travel and tourism in particular, to a standstill for the better part of two years. On the positive side, the sector’s recovery is already underway. But perhaps as early as 2024, governments will need to issue visas and travel authorizations, and manage the border crossings, of an even greater number of passengers as compared to pre-pandemic levels.
Returning to the key findings of the UN World Tourism Organization (UN-WTO), together with the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), their analysis found visa facilitation programs increased international tourist arrivals from 5-25% per year; and the introduction of new types of visas resulted in an average increase of 8.1%. Both organizations found India’s travel and tourism economy had grown by >20% following the country’s launch of its e-visa application process. Equally importantly, the issuance of electronic visas and travel authorizations enables governments to capture biometrics and leverage mobile technologies, allowing passengers to travel safely, securely and seamlessly across the border. These findings highlight how the implementation of electronic visa and travel authorization programs can deliver a significant boost to a country’s travel and tourism economy; and create an opportunity to capture vital electronic data on visa-exempt nationals to strengthen national security.
Implementation of electronic visa and travel authorization programs can deliver a significant boost to a country’s travel and tourism economy; and create an opportunity to capture vital electronic data on visa-exempt nationals to strengthen national security.
As compelling as these arguments are, what really makes the case for change for government control authorities is the recommendation by the United Nations agency responsible for passport and visa standards, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which has proposed changes to Annex 9 (Facilitation) of the Chicago Convention and encouraged its 193 Member States to adopt Electronic Travel Systems.
And with the European Union’s implementation of its Electronic Travel Information & Authorization System (ETIAS), scheduled for 2023, it will soon be the case that the majority of countries worldwide will be issuing electronic visas and travel authorizations as the primary route for all passengers, both visa nationals and visa-exempt nationals, to enter and/or transit through their country.
Leveraging Mobile Devices to Increase Security, Decrease Fraud, and Improve Traveller Experience
Importantly, the global drivers for adoption of electronic travel authorization systems need to be seen in the context of the vast majority (92%) of travellers’ preference to use their own technology to organize their trip.
Earlier this year, SITA published its 2022 Passenger IT Insights Report which highlighted how a growing proportion of travellers are now opting for mobile apps. In 2019 and early 2020, only 8% of travelers used mobile apps to perform key process steps in their journey (e.g. booking, check-in, bag-drop). By early 2022, that number had already risen to 20%. Today, with so many travellers carrying at least one mobile device on their journey – coupled with recent technological advances such as the integration of Near Field Communication (NFC) into mobile operating systems, iOS® and Android® in particular – the need for all stakeholders to provide mobile solutions will increase significantly. Indeed, within the next three to five years, we predict the majority of travellers will rely on digital mobile solutions to organize all aspects of their journey by land, sea or air, including visa applications and border crossings.
For their part, governments will further drive the adoption of digital mobile solutions as, by doing so, they will create new capabilities to enroll passengers, perform document authentication, conduct strong biometric identity verification, cross reference the ICAO Public Key Directory (PKD) and integrate new standards, such as the ICAO Visible Digital Seal (VDS) and/or the ICAO Digital Travel Credential (DTC).
And for carriers, ports and other travel and tourism providers, the ability to digitally verify an electronic visa or travel authorization as ‘genuine’ and ‘valid’, not only significantly increases security but also significantly decreases opportunities for fraud, meaning fewer passengers are deemed inadmissible or improperly documented upon arrival requiring them to be returned home at the carrier’s expense.
Finally, for travelers, every piece of research we have conducted over the past decade has highlighted their increasing willingness to use their own technology, mobile devices in particular, at key steps throughout their journey. Offering digital mobile solutions to travellers puts them in control of their journey and allows them to consent to their data being securely shared along the way.
For travellers, every piece of research we have conducted over the past decade has highlighted their increasing willingness to use their own technology, mobile devices in particular, at key steps throughout their journey.
I think we’re now at the point where we can implement a joined up digital travel process across the entire journey, whether that be by land, sea, or air, and I think all starts when governments commit to digitally transform their visa and pre-travel authorization regime.