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By Co-contributors: Mary Charleson and Barbara Cameron

Mary Charleson, the author, has been a marketing consultant, speaker and writer at for the last 20 years. Since launching in 2018, a travel content site for female adventure travelers over 50, she has recently merged her two passions through writing, consulting and speaking about how the travel industry will recover from the pandemic. Barbara Cameron, who provided the genesis for this article, and contributed much of the research, was formerly a business analyst on the global IT team for Colliers International, tasked with implementing GDPR privacy principals and rights within their global digital ecosystem. Prior to that she travelled to 17 countries over 6 continents for a year abroad as a travel photographer and writer. Barbara now leads a food and travel photography website, Collectively, as members of the BC Association of Travel Writers, both bring years of experience and insight to a topic yet to be widely explored by the travel industry.


What would it take to travel internationally again?

That was the question Mary Charleson and Barbara Cameron, both avid global explorers found themselves pondering recently over a glass of wine, sharing a Zoom screen, reminiscing about past travel, and anticipating future adventures.

Both admitted to the reluctance to hop on a flight currently, with likely less than ideal social distanced situations in flight and at airports, compounded by extended exposure in a confined space. They also both agreed that the level of uncertainty about what is safely available at the destination, and the possibility of fluid restrictions abroad, further limited the appeal. And that was before a range of safety cleaning standards in other countries was even considered, plus the challenge of insurance, and the prospect of the 14-day quarantine upon return to Canada, currently in place. Basically they concluded, while limited international flights are being offered, the value proposition was questionable, until a vaccine or plausible treatment dramatically lowered the risks. Yet some destination are opening, and travel sellers are selling them with governments encouraging tourism, knowing economies depend on it.

“Right now the push to travel again is embraced by some, and feared by others”

The time to travel beyond domestic borders will return, and it could promise an incredible opportunity to visit coveted locations during earlier phases, with fear limiting numbers. Certainly airlines and destinations are incentivizing travelers to book into the future right now. Whether we want to acknowledge the business motivation to sell destinations, amidst the ethical dilemma of encouraging travel while a pandemic still grips the world, there will come a time when travel will resume, and it will be before a vaccine is widely available. But the only way that borders will open up on a larger scale for that to take place, is if standardized safety measures are put in place and there are options such as widespread contact tracing.

“Until we have a vaccine, we are going to have to move forward with risk-reduction strategies,” said Matthew Sims, director of infectious disease research at Beaumont Health, in a recent article ranking Covid-19 risks by activities  “Because you can’t keep the economy on hold forever, you can’t keep peoples’ lives on hold forever.”

“Travel will look very different, forever, or at least a decade”, notes Shannon Stowell, CEO Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA)

“It’s the first time we’ve had a truly global crisis, and that’s had impact on people,” said Lynn Hughes, Editor in Chief, Wanderlust Media, based in the UK. She also notes that readers, during a recent survey, have said things like, “I’ll never take travel for granted again.”

Bruce Poon Tip, Founder of G Adventures sums up the goal for risk-reduction strategies this way. “Everyone’s talking about different sanitization programs, but ultimately we want travellers to feel comfortable again, and get to a point where we were as carefree as prior to the pandemic, and travel again.”

But right now, that’s a challenge. It will be messy as things open up, and various regions deal with the challenge in different ways.

If you think we made previously unimaginable compromises to personal data in exchange for the freedom to travel post 9-11, Covid-19 could put that experience on steroids as travel agents, airlines, destination experiences, and accommodations struggle to remain in business while grappling with how to deal with public safety during a pandemic.


A traveler’s guide to contact tracing

Armed with a love of travel and joint backgrounds in journalism, research, marketing, IT and privacy legislation, we’ve offered here a traveler’s guide to contact tracing, as a possible solution, in an accessible Q&A conversation, not unlike what popped up during our Zoom call over wine. Except we’ve now done the research for you.

Let’s first understand that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs dictates that consumers right now are being driven by safety and security-based choices. They are unlikely to travel, a choice typically driven by needs further up the pyramid such as love and belonging, and self-estem, until safety needs are realized first. Read more about this here.

“At its heart contact tracing protects public health while helping to stimulate national and global economies through the movement of people and commerce”

When will you feel safe to travel internationally again? That depends on your personal situation, and your comfort with risk, but for now, let’s explore how “contact tracing”, or “exposure notification” the newly coined term, with less Orwellian connotations, is likely to play out. It is certain to be a key in countries opening up international borders, and allowing the movement of citizens beyond local communities

What does contact tracing mean?

Contact tracing essentially allows those who may have been exposed to Covid-19 to be informed, so they can seek testing or isolate themselves to prevent further spread. Contact tracing, which allows countries, states or provinces to protect citizens and limit future outbreaks, has the common good of humanity at its core.

What types of contact tracing currently exist?

There is manual tracing and digital tracing. While manual tracing by default must be centralized, digital tracing has the option of centralizing or decentralizing data collected. Let’s look at each in more detail.

Manual tracing:

Manual tracing is performed by doctors, nurses, and health officials, mostly over the phone, to retrace and locate the source of infection in order to alert others who may have been in contact. It is slow, labour-intensive, subject to human memory error, and requires the storing and disseminating of highly sensitive data connected to identity.

Digital tracing:

Digital tracing utilizes user proximity data facilitated by Bluetooth technology on mobile phones. With an identifier and matching process linked to devices and not personal identity, using anonymous encrypted codes, users can be notified when they have been in contact with a reported confirmed case of Covid-19. Most digital tracing apps work from a voluntary reporting structure, and notify recipients based on proximity and duration of exposure.

Data storage and dissemination

Digital tracing can utilize either centralized or decentralized storage of information. With centralized apps, data is stored on a central server where government or public health agencies track it. There is higher privacy risk, but it is justified in the name of public interest. With decentralized apps, data is stored on phones and users are alerted anonymously with proximity data. Personal data is only shared if the user volunteers to share.

How does this impact an international traveler?

Where this starts getting tricky is the current race to get contact tracing in place is largely being driven by singular nation, state and even regional focus, since that is where immediate interest exists to protect citizens, rather than a coordinated global exercise.

At issue is an ineffective patchwork of uncoordinated individual efforts, all potentially with the risk of compromising personal data at the hands of international governments. At the very least, travelers could be faced with downloading multiple individual country apps, and countries could risk data not being shared between countries, putting their citizens or travelers at risk.

Photo by Rui Chaves from Pexels

What countries are currently using contact tracing?

Singapore was the first country in the world to roll out a digital app in response to Covid-19. The UK National Health Service (NHS) has created and is currently testing a centralized app. They are being closely monitored by ICO (Information Commissioners Office). Qatar recently launched a mandatory contact tracing app, but had to recall it when serious security breaches were identified. Now fixed, the vulnerability would have allowed cyber attackers to access highly sensitive personal information, including the name, national ID, health status and location data of more than one million users.

According to the Digital Contract Tracing Comparative Global Study, by Access Partnership, regions and countries currently working on and planning to launch their own apps include: the EU, UK, Germany, France, Italy, China, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, India, Australia, the US (although development is fractured by state and only 4 states have signed on to the Apple/Google Exposure Notification API (explained later in this article), Canada, Brazil, Columbia, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Iran, and Israel. The current approach is fragmented with insular projects all over the world, that in the end will limit transfer of data between different technologies, and countries, and there will be inconsistent standards for privacy. It’s a bit like Beta and VHS battling for supremacy, but with multiple manufacturers and different global system requirements.

What about my data privacy?

Canada has PIPEDA (Personal Information Privacy Electronic Documents Act), which basically governs how personal information is gathered, stored, used and accessed. Many countries have brought in similar policies to govern the use collection and use of personal information in the digital age. The GDPR is a set of data privacy guidelines for the EU, but it has become somewhat of a global standard for digital data privacy implementations. The guidelines govern lawfulness, fairness, transparency, purpose of collection, use, accuracy, storage, integrity, confidentiality, security, accountability, consent and data minimizing. The guidelines also outline rights – particularly relevant to profiling, an important part of contact tracing. What exists right now is a patchwork of policies, but no global standard. Some, but not all countries are likely to subscribe to these types of best practices, and as a non-citizen you would need to accept that.

Is anybody working on a coordinated system?

Yes, Google and Apple announced on April 10, 2020 that they are working together on a global technology solution.  In a two-pronged approach, they are creating an Application Programming Interface (API) to meet demand and a sense of urgency initially, but will build a solution into both operating systems in the coming months.

It’s important to note that they have changed the language from “contact tracing” to “exposure notification” which indicates that it’s not an invasive technology that identifies actual people or location data. Their technology enables interoperability (easy communication) between Android and iOS devices. Using Bluetooth technology, it would use decentralized data kept on the phone, and not link to personal information. According to both companies, this is how it would work:

“Both phases of the solution harness the power of Bluetooth technology to aid in exposure notification. Once enabled, users’ devices will regularly send out a beacon via Bluetooth that includes a random Bluetooth identifier — basically, a string of random numbers that aren’t tied to a user’s identity and change every 10-20 minutes for additional protection. Other phones will be listening for these beacons and broadcasting theirs as well. When each phone receives another beacon, it will record and securely store that beacon on the device.

At least once per day, the system will download a list of the keys for the beacons that have been verified as belonging to people confirmed as positive for COVID-19. Each device will check the list of beacons it has recorded against the list downloaded from the server. If there is a match between the beacons stored on the device and the positive diagnosis list, the user may be notified and advised on steps to take next. 

If at some point a user is positively diagnosed with COVID-19, he or she can work with the health authority to report that diagnosis within the app, and with their consent their beacons will then added to the positive diagnosis list. User identity will not be shared with other users, Apple and Google as part of this process.“

What are my rights and responsibilities as an international traveler, related to the data?

There’s a lot to consider in terms of who has access to data if it is stored centrally, its future use, your rights to know about exposure, your obligation to report (depending on national rules governing voluntary or required use) and of course legal issues, which if associated with a country’s app, would be governed by their legal system.

Who is going to oversee all of this?

It’s a big world out there, and as long as the virus is active, there will be risk. At this stage it appears to be a fragmented national race, with the likelihood that the global technology sector will experience the greatest uptake eventually. But perhaps that’s at the crux of it. All of these notification systems are only as good as their adaptation and use. With trust required, and very different approaches to rights and freedom globally, it’s likely to be a compromised solution until a vaccine emerges, at best.

Will contact tracing be mandatory to be able to travel?

It’s possible that airlines could require the use of contact tracing via their own app, or through the use of the Google/Apple API system of exposure notification on a global scale. Airlines are the major pinch point to opening up travel and the massive dollars at stake for the entire global industry again. If participation became mandatory for booking, there could at least be some assurance provided to a country opening up their borders.

Airlines are struggling to survive and social distancing on planes is not economical over the long term when most flights need 70% of seats filled to break even. Some have suggested that full flights be allowed with contact tracing apps mandatory for passengers. But the European Union recently rejected the idea of making Coronavirus contact tracing apps mandatory for international travel. Instead they have said that the voluntary use of tracing apps should be encouraged by governments.

When asked to comment on the use of Apps for this article, Terry Jones, former executive at American Airlines, Founder of Expedia, Co-founder of and speaker in the area of disruption and innovation, had this to say:

“There’s been a bunch of those. Look at China, you need a green QR code to go anywhere. To me tracing makes all the sense in the world. There’s all these people freaked out about data privacy. I’m not. There is no privacy. Get over it. The government knows everything about you already. But most people don’t think that, and they don’t like that.”

In our own province of British Columbia, recent Insights West research indicates that 44% of residents support, and 48% oppose contact tracing. These statistics indicate just how divided people are about the idea of contact tracing, even in a province that has been seen as a global leader handling the crisis, and in a country where trust in government is generally high. It might well be that contact tracing, along with other mandatory measures like mask wearing, in the hands of private airlines, who are the most motivated to fill planes again, is the solution.

What about people who don’t carry cell phones, or countries with less wireless availability and use?

Yes, there are people out there without mobile devices, but generally these days, most travelers carry one out of necessity for communications and bookings. However, this does identify some drawbacks. In addition to those who choose to not use the app, there could be others without a cell phone you’ll encounter, or people who don’t always have it with them. Still there will be others who will find themselves in places without reception. There is never going to be a perfect solution. We just have to accept that along with the overall risks of travel until Covid-19 is eradicated.

What happens if I’m exposed while traveling?

This brings up the questions of rights and responsibilities. Would travelers have the right to be tested in foreign countries? Would they have the responsibility to self-isolate and notify others? Are there legal issues here? What about treatment? And how does this impact travel insurance? Unfortunately there are more questions than answers until we know more about how this could be coordinated on a global scale.

What happens to contact tracing data once the pandemic is over?

This is likely the biggest concern from those that fear governments could be motivated to use tracking data for surveillance in some way beyond the pandemic. Currently decentralized data apps offer the strongest guard against this, as well as countries that subscribe to tight policies on personal data use, such as the GDPR in the EU. Indeed limiting nationalistic driven solutions on a global scale should not only be driven by safety for all, and ease of use for travelers, but by the desire to maintain global freedoms and the ethical treatment of citizens.

What will countries require of travelers to enter?

That remains a big question. Some countries could require the use of a local contact tracing app or an exposure notification API to enter in the future. Others may make it voluntary, but require testing to book, and then testing at arrival to pass quarantine requirements, such as Iceland is doing right now. Cambodia just took it to a whole new level, requiring $3000 from travelers upon arrival, to pay for testing and potential quarantine, with a portion returned after a negative test result. And there are other countries who will toss caution to the wind, and embrace anyone willing to spend travel dollars in an effort to revive the local economy.

How will airlines deal with all of this?

“Airlines can’t function on ½ capacity. There will be a cycle – low price to get people back, and then someone will go bankrupt. Then you’ll have a capacity issue so you can raise prices,” notes Terry Jones. Airlines are dealing with increased costs to keep distancing in place, along with higher health and cleaning standards, and increased turn over time between flights, at a time with low demand. With looming federal aid due to expire in September, consolidation in the industry is pretty much certain. Getting bums back in seats is about reestablishing trust. Exposure notification and prevention through a global app could play a major role.

“During 9/11 when I was running Travelocity, business was down 70%, and today during the pandemic, business is down 90%, so it’s much worse” notes Terry Jones. “It’s going to take a concerted effort, through every advertising and PR outlet they have, to tell people what they’re doing – deep cleaning between flights, touchless boarding, spaces between seats. They’re doing the right things in terms of practices, but not enough to tell their story. This is about changing behavior. Most of the information about what they’re doing is on their website. But people aren’t going to the website, because they aren’t going anywhere and booking.”

There’s also a huge discrepancy of experiences, and that’s damaging from a PR perspective, because it gets shared on social media. This article shared widely online about American Airlines is just one example.

What does all this mean for international travel?

Increasingly, if we go down the contact tracing or exposure notification route, safe travel will not only mean health safety, but also data safety. Is it time for the travel industry to advocate for a global solution – something consistent across borders, airports, and languages, decentralized, to ensure privacy? Data safety will challenge us globally in ways 9/11 only began to scratch the surface.

“There is pent up demand for people who want to travel. As an industry we need to come together. There are so many different standards. It’s hard for travelers to make sense of it, and things change quickly,” notes Joe Diaz, Co-founder AFAR Media.

Shannon Stowell, CEO, ATTA perhaps sums it up best. “People need to travel to live their lives. Travel experiences are our most inspiring moments in life, the things that have changed us. I view it as vital to get back out there. We need to communicate safety, and then there’s risk. Life is about some level of risk. Let’s do what we can safely, use protocols, get them out there, companies using them, communicate the places that are ready to receive visitors and be honest about the use of data. Then people will start moving again.”

It was at this point that Mary and Barbara poured themselves another glass of wine, while on that Zoom call, and contemplated when they would each next travel internationally. Both agreed this would be a choice, based on very personal circumstances and comfort with risk. Welcome to post Covid-19 international travel. It’s going to be quite a ride.


We did a podcast interview with Kit Parks of Active Travel Adventures based on this article, which went live on July 17, 2020. You can have a listen to it here:


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