At Ibiza airport, a young traveller was in the queue just ahead of an OECD team coming home from a conference, waiting for her turn to board, when an airline agent approached her. He was checking everyone’s COVID-19 vaccination certificates. The young woman did not have her certificate with her – she thought it was not needed for intra-EU travel -- and was denied boarding on her flight home. You can imagine how upsetting this was: no place to stay, at the height of the holiday season, so even if she found anywhere, the costs would be enormous, and finding a new flight is not easy at the moment. There were phone-calls home, tears.
We would all like to think that the dark days of travel bans and endless testing before travel are behind us, but the reality is that travel can still be an upsetting, difficult and expensive experience. The latest new omicron variants show us that this pandemic still has the ability to give us nasty surprises, and if we are to manage any future pandemic in a better, less disruptive way than this one, we need to continue policy actions to improve the mechanisms in place for safe international travel. Digital health certificates are a huge opportunity to promote the safety of international travel, but as that traveller would tell us, policy measures need to be clear, transparent, predictable, and coordinated.
Together with the Government of Spain, the OECD organised a High Level Meeting on Safe International Travel on the 7th and 8th of July. The OECD team was in fact travelling back from this meeting in Ibiza when they saw the difficulties faced by the traveller just mentioned. The meeting was chaired by the Spanish Minister of Industry, Trade, and Tourism, and it attracted nearly all the key actors in the field. It included addresses by the OECD, the World Health Organization, the UN World Tourism Organization, and the International Civil Aviation Organization, and CEOs of trade associations and leading businesses in international travel and tourism. It brought together in the same room the leaders of key initiatives to promote safe international travel, who have worked and interacted together for the last two years, and yet had never met in person before. The meeting was also organised to support the work of the Indonesian G20 Presidency, which has made creating a more coherent global system of travel certificates one of their central priorities.
COVID-19 travel restrictions devastated national economies. The meeting agreed that urgent action is needed to accelerate the return to pre-pandemic levels of international tourism and committed to work towards a framework that ensures a safe, adaptable and seamless travel environment.
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Participants recognised that constantly changing travel protocols, that countries had introduced in an un-coordinated way, not only failed to stop the spread of COVID-19, but caused confusion and anxiety for travellers, travel companies and those tasked with enforcing such measures. The meeting therefore underlined the need for much closer coordination in the future, in three main policy areas.
First, the meeting called for the adoption and promotion of a set of high-level principles to guide further recovery in the travel and tourism sector. In particular, the meeting emphasised the need to adopt a risk-based approach; to ensure policy is based on scientific evidence; that measures are equitable and inclusive; that data collection accords with the International Health Regulations; and that epidemiological information is shared between countries without the fear of non-justified border closures. This probably sounds a bit abstract and high-level, away from the immediate concerns of a traveller, but in fact is a necessary precursor to standardising rules. Should tests be in the 48 hours before travel, or within 2 days of travel (not the same: one is measured by the clock, one by the calendar)? Do children have to be 5, 6 or 12 to be exempted from the need for vaccination? Should countries recognise Russian-made vaccines? In this pandemic, countries have made different choices, and won’t change them now – it would be too disruptive for their populations. But agreeing a set of principles opens the way to greater co-ordination in the future.
Second, the meeting recognised the importance of the major initiatives with regard to various digital certificates to facilitate safe international travel, and agreed that it was key to make them work better together. In particular, participants endorsed the need for work ensuring the interoperability of digital systems for vaccine certificate recognition between different issuing authorities, with technical work going on already as part of the G20 process, with ‘connect-a-thons’ and other meetings to align systems more closely.
Thirdly, the meeting agreed that the measures being developed today will contribute towards more resilient safe international travel in the future, to avoid a repeat of the devastating impact on the travel and tourism sector we saw as a result of the way that COVID-19 was managed.
We hope the young woman made it home ok in the end. As eloquent as all the speeches about the need to make progress in our Ibiza conference room were, her tears were more so. We are, perhaps, 95% of the way towards a seamless global system for checking vaccine and test results for the next pandemic; one more concerted effort is needed to get the job finished.
The current health crisis calls for more sustainable and resilient international mobility systems to allow for the recovery of travel while preserving public health goals, and to improve preparedness against future shocks.
Find out more about the OECD's work to enable Safe International Travel.
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