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.

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.

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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12 Comments

  1. Pre-covid we were taking 3-4 trips per year to different countries. Now, with the constantly changing restrictions, limited services at hotels, no rental cars (although internationally that is less of a concern for my own travel situation), stripped down services on planes, and yes as you mentioned – those long lines and difficulties at airports. Not only in other countries, but arrivals back into the US as well. As someone who loves visiting other countries, right now I have zero desire to as it’s too complicated, still too awkward, quick-changing restrictions, and no desire to wait in those long lines like you’ve described.

    Further, I’m so disgusted with airlines and hotels and I’ve taken all of my spend and just using cash-back cards nowadays as I’ve seen airlines and hotels use covid as an excuse to gut their loyalty programs as well as nearly all value from their product offerings. For years I’ve used hotel and airline cards. These days I’m using cash back offerings and forgoing any bother with hotel or airline points/miles. Hotels and airlines have used covid as an easy excuse to cut more corners and create higher profits. Loyalty programs are nearly pointless now. I hope they come back, but think that may only happen if enough people actually vote with their dollars. It feels that the whole travel industry has taken this as an easy excuse to just cut services and blame it on covid. I mean, the elimination of housekeeping at major hotels “for your safety”?

    Like you say, countries as well need to recognize that tourists are customers bringing valuable cash to the destination.

    I am certainly hopeful things will return, but it doesn’t seem like it will this year as people are too careless, governments too disorganized, and travel-related industries far too concerned about increasing profits above all else.

  2. I don’t know how you fared on your recent UK trip but it took me just over two hours to get through immigration about 10 days ago at LHR terminal 5. Kids, older people, it was pretty rough. And I’ve heard of much longer times.

  3. Great article and a lot of truth. Unfortunately, people like torture. It’s why the NYC subway system is the way it is, it’s why Spirit and Frontier airlines exist, it’s why people will stand in 3 hour lines in Cancun airport to enter the country. The people have spoken, they will put up with miserable conditions. Shouldn’t have to, but why change it when the dollars are rolling in? Human behavior is not going to change. People will continue to fly LCC’s and head to Cancun and wait hours in immigration lines.

  4. Another great article by Gilbert!
    As you well mentioned travellers are not idiots to repeatedly spend their money, time and energy at places that don’t respect them so destinations that take the financial gains seriously will either improve the traveller experience or simply lose them and their precious £$€’s!
    A terrible airport experience is enough to make me avoid it even for an essential travel let alone for a non-essential one!
    As someone travelling to different greek airports every year for the last 15+ years I completely agree that it’s such a pleasant turnaround story to see them going from terrible to great in the last 3 years or so!

  5. Just as important are procedures for leaving a country. Hot, crowded terminals and long lines at BKK emigration are completely unnecessary, for example.

  6. For 17 years I have managed to avoid BA and Heathrow connections because of two bad experiences transiting there and shabby BA service. Much better experience in MUC and even FRA.

  7. After a 12h flight info coach it’s a shame the time someone has to spend at the Inmigracion queues. Being British Gold will avoid any Heathrow connection. While being American ExPlat tried to avoid the horrible Mia experience. It’s a total shame how peolple is treated like cattle.

  8. Well said Gilbert. Thirty five years ago I was returning from a large Greek island. The airport yet again was filthy, the delays ridiculous and the check-in queue went out of the airport across the arrivals main road and into the car park. I gave up on Greece and made Spain my regular country for family holidays. I didn’t set foot in the country for 20 years and I am half Greek. I started to return to a much better travel experience in Greece about 15 years ago.

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