Travel is rebooting around the world, particularly for fully vaccinated people. The exciting trend marks the return of a global lifeline which employs circa 10% of the world’s population and brings vital economic opportunity to millions more. In some countries, travel is the economy.
So, why do most countries treat tourist arrivals like dirt, leaving them to stand in line, in warm, unventilated spaces with little (if any) social distancing, for hours? The short answer is that there is no good answer, other than “because they can”, and because people running departments related to borders in many governments don’t get it.
You wouldn’t stand for it at your local shop, so why put up with it in a place where you’re paying a premium with overnight accommodation taxes, air passenger charges and other fees, just to enter?
It’s time for it all to stop, because if it doesn’t, many people just won’t bother again. If people don’t, the road to travel recovery will be even slower than it already is. This is the time to remind people why travel matters, why international business trips can still be worth it, and that creating customer service in travel doesn’t just extend to airlines and hotels.
Long Immigration Queues Must Go
Did you know that the Maldives somewhat recently became the first country to launch a loyalty program for visitors?
Yep, as a tourism driven nation, the emphasis during the pandemic was safety first, with robust PCR testing regimes, but then to ensure that every visitor immediately felt like the trip was “worth it”.
This means quick and efficient borders with sufficient air conditioning and immigration officers who complete necessary checks with a smile, rather than a “I’m out to get you” face, so that visitors can quickly get to where they want to be: a hotel, with a view.
Countries typically vet passengers in advance of travel, so most border checks are a formality, with only a very small percentage of travelers requiring further questioning upon arrival.
Why should any other country get away with less?
Through the Maldives loyalty program, repeat visitors can earn skip the line privileges, hotel discounts and other worthwhile perks for the ole’ travel wallet. Other countries may not go as far, but with the revenue made off of passengers, a newly honed focus on customer satisfaction should be first priority in the months and years ahead.
Yet, in countries such as the UK, USA and others in all corners of the world, people are forced to queue at borders for hours, with no sign of change. The USA is notoriously awful staffing CBP officers at key checkpoints, despite ample data around impending swarms of arrivals.
In the UK, things may be even worse at the moment, to no fault of the border officers themselves. A recent report out of the UK noted that just one immigration officer was staffed to handle thousands of airport arrivals at Heathrow T5. This is not the fault of the airline or the airport.
Immigration officers are salaried, there are many thousands of them and surely if a country is actually eager to curb covid-19 spread, dispersing large crowds gathered indoors would be a priority number one thing, right?
Putting any notion or argument of customer service aside, surely that’s just pure “health and safety”, as they like to say in the UK. But really, with the fees collected, we are customers.
A passenger flying business class to the UK pays £180 (over $250!) in government ‘air passenger duty’ just to fly. Surely, a mere fraction of that would be enough to cover a dedicated border official for each passenger arrival, say $50 per hour, which is 1/5th of the fee collected. I’m half kidding, but even just swift processing would do!
Countries Risk Losing Discretionary Travelers
As countries look to rebound, travelers will have long memories about their border experiences. The beginning and end of the trip should not dampen experience.
If there’s a choice between exciting destination A, which fully staffs its border check points and allows for seamless entry in under 10 minutes using technology and highly efficient processes to complete security checks, or option B, which always takes hours, those with discretion will opt for option A.
A traveler visiting under legal grounds is a customer, whether a government wants to admit it, or not.
They’re contributing financially to infrastructure, jobs and tax revenue to the country they are entering. It’s time for a big change, where it’s not just countries which depend on tourists, to recognize the value of tourism, but all countries. Big booming countries must value arrivals too..
Again, much of the border queues are theatre anyway. If a country doesn’t want someone in the country, they typically move to exclude them from boarding the flight at the point of origin, rather than after arrival.
This is done with things visitor visa applications like the ETA, ETIAS or ESTA, which countries prefer to call travel authorizations, since they’re “not visas”, even though they are. These measures also bring even more revenue (to help staff borders) from tourist arrivals.
In 2019, before the pandemic, the EU brought in 745 million tourist visitors in a year. It’s expected the bloc will charge €10 per ETIAS, which when you multiply 745,000,000 x 10, is no small sum. Surely, that can fund a better travel entry experience.
Some Countries Get It, More Need To
I’ve long held an affinity for Greece, but only recently for its airports. For decades, just about every happy visitor to Greece had their fuzzy vacation vibes quashed upon exit from the country, with hot, entirely overcrowded and under ventilated spaces at most island airports.
Wanting visitors to leave with positive feelings, Greece spent billions over the last few years upgrading airports and improving border protocols and staffing. It’s very much paying off, as the country edges towards pre-pandemic visitor levels, with satisfaction levels.
As a tourism dependent nation, Greece realized that people have choice, and those who fancy a seamless trip will factor in bad previous experiences. I know people who specifically won’t fly into JFK or LAX, just because of the immigration wait times they’ve experienced.
Infrastructure Projects: The Time Is Now
The time is now, because infrastructure and spending projects seem to be the topic du jour among governments around the world. The US is looking to spend trillions, other countries billions, on improving domestic infrastructure and stimulating jobs.
Starting with very easy to recognize pain points, such as horribly designed facilities, under staffed checkpoints and overworked immigration officers would be a good start. Consumers are smarter than ever, and it won’t be long before border hassles are a part of travel destination vetting.