Ethical Travelling in a Covid World

It is vital that tourism is given a clear path to recovery, particularly for developing nations. However, ethical travelling is equally as important – visitors must be sensitive to the new demands, pitfalls, and intricacies now present in the communities they travel to.

I recently took an online trip to the seven “New Wonders of the World”, triggered by a nostalgia for the travel I used to do prior to the advent of Covid. It struck me that all of the countries where these wonders are located have been significantly affected by the virus. Peru (Machu Picchu), Brazil (Christ the Redeemer), Italy (Colosseum), Mexico (Chichen Itza), and Jordan (Petra) all have seen death rates of over 1% of those infected in the population, according to Worldometers. Meanwhile, India (Taj Mahal) has also suffered hugely, and China (Great Wall) was the epicentre of the original outbreak.

Aside from the obvious direct human cost, the economic impact has been horrendous too (as will be knock-on health and social effects that will inevitably follow). For example, according to the Peruvian government tourist bureau in Cusco in January 2021, Covid has been devastating for the local population. An estimated 92% of those previously employed in the tourist industry having lost their jobs. These include families providing homestays, women’s collectives weaving ponchos and other textiles, and native guides. Prior to Covid-19, community-focused travel such as this, was on the rise, and we must, with the resumption of tourism, shine the spotlight on ethical travelling once again.

In Mexico, where 11 million people rely on tourism for their livelihoods, it is a similar story. The slump in visitor numbers combined with little or no government support has seen many slip into unemployment and poverty. Further afield, entrance ticket sales to international tourists to Angkor Wat fell 97% over the past year. An estimated 51,000 tourist jobs (and nearly 3,000 local businesses) have been lost during the pandemic, according to the Cambodian Ministry of Tourism.  

Ethical travelling requires sympathy to those who have suffer huge losses thanks to the pandemic.
The pandemic has had devastating effects on every level of tourism, such as this women’s collective, which weaves ponchos

Tourism’s Recovery – a sensitive balance

From an ethical perspective, what can and should an overseas traveller do to help people faced with such economic devastation in developing countries? As border restrictions are eased, and vaccine roll outs reach deeper into the population, this question has been puzzling me (in my case I live in the UK). Communities desperately short of tourist income may be very keen to welcome international visitors. For tourist enterprises on the brink of bankruptcy and families facing hardship, the opportunity to relaunch shuttered businesses may be welcome, allowing people to earn revenue once more.  

However, sensitivity is needed, since some communities may also be grieving Covid’s impact.  Although they might welcome economic support, compassion for their potential recent trauma is appropriate as well. Holidays are typically a time for joyful relaxation, but it would be worth tempering some behaviours to respect local sentiments. Furthermore, locals may be fearful of future outbreaks of the virus and the impact of these. Tourists fleeing various restrictions back home could endear themselves by ensuring they comply with those in place at their destination. There is a need for the tourist to take personal responsibility for their compliance to local rules, such as mask mandates and social distancing. Ethical travelling starts with the traveller.

SafeScore can help travellers make informed decisions about when are where to go, based on up-to-date, accurate Covid data.  However, tourists can also benefit from conversations with local travel agents and guides to understand what is “appropriate tourism” in this complex time.

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To Make or to Wait? Creating Decision-Making Aids for Travel

Do it right? Or do it right now? Creating decision-making aids in the current climate of rapid technical and data evolution presents developers with a conundrum.  Getting a solution into the market quickly allows them to test their value proposition and potentially steal a march on competitors by establishing a brand.  By contrast, waiting another six months means incorporating functionality and data that was not previously available, ensuring greater value to customers.

In this data-driven arms race it is important to remember that an end point probably does not exist.  Ceaseless innovation will inevitably render many solutions redundant before they’ve had an opportunity to embed themselves in customers’ organisations.  This should not discourage developers, though, so long as they consider how to incorporate solutions into customers’ workflow.

A departures board at an airport displays various destination options for travellers - decision-making aids can help with the confusion
Border restrictions and entry rules thwart standardised and automated data collection

Changing rules, changing data

Covid data relating to travel is constantly evolving as countries’ and territories’ rules change.  The volume of data is also expanding, as governments and organisations are collecting more, and more granular data.  Both impact travellers’ decisions.  Ingesting, standardising, and categorising these various streams is a challenge for data scientists, and there is a risk of boiling the ocean to create a solution which synthesises an ever-expanding data set.

Developing a model with this functionality, whilst also future-proofing it, presents a terrific long-term challenge.  This should not detract from adding value right now, though.  The Pareto Principle (commonly termed the 80/20 Rule) suggests that the majority of requirements can often be met by solving a relatively small number of problems.  

Examples include machine learning solutions which are used to interpret medical images in hospitals or luggage scans in airports.  Training the technology to identify frequent, unambiguous instances, frees up human specialists to focus on the rarer complex and cryptic cases, where subtle interpretation is needed.  

One size doesn’t fit all

The same approach can apply to travel data.  For the majority of customers, the parameters of their travel decision will be easy for them to define.  This can be supported by a core data set that is kept current with regular updates from trusted sources.  Providing automated solutions for this cohort can help them incorporate Covid-19 considerations into their flight booking, just as they currently filter by price, duration, and number of stops.  This standardised approach creates significant value whilst remaining relatively simple and easy to maintain.  While there could of course be more data layered into the offering, we must remember that for many customers, good enough is good enough.

For those customers requiring more bespoke arrangements, or whose circumstances are more complex, additional functionality can be developed.  Detailed information about the specifics of local quarantine arrangements for returning travellers with children, for example, may not lend itself to the level of standardisation necessary to incorporate it into a straightforward core solution. Additionally, the introduction of discrete vaccinations and their respective requirements further complicates matters. At this point a broker or agent armed with an accurate and timely qualitative data feed could be best placed to offer a premium service. An off-the-shelf approach is not designed to fit the needs of the most intricate requirements. 

Customers are heterogenous, and so are the data solutions they require to best support their decision making.  Developers must seek to remain valuable to the organisations they serve.  This means they must balance the expediency of “good enough” data against a sensitive awareness of how to create the tailored add-ons necessary for first class services.

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Travel Decisions in a Time of Covid

The packing list for holidays in times of Covid is as likely to require Xanax as it is sunscreen.  Whilst the thought of escaping the claustrophobic confines of lockdown for the beaches of the Mediterranean may seem appealing, navigating the ceaselessly changing guidelines and regulations is a stressful business. 

Packing in a pandemic is more stressful than ever.

The hurdles of unpredictability

Building predictability into travel planning is clearly a priority for travel agents and airlines, whose revenues have been hammered both by their customers’ Covid safety concerns and also by capricious rule makers.  Yet in an environment where new disease, quarantine and testing data is constantly influencing governments’ models, is it possible to anticipate what the likelihood is of successfully enjoying a fortnight under the exotic sun over the summer?

Naturally, one impact has been the growth in domestic tourism, with prospective holidaymakers swapping foreign trips for those closer to home, which do not run the risk of a last minute state or national border closure.  The rediscovery of local culture and beauty spots have been a boon for battered home markets.  But even here, travellers have been disappointed at times, as snap restrictions between certain Australian states and between Australia and New Zealand, for example, have severely dented consumer confidence.

Rapidly changing travel restrictions can lead to missed flights, lost holidays, and more headaches.

Has the need to travel overcome the desire to visit?

Another trend has seen customers booking trips based on the accessibility of a country rather than the quality of the destination.  This is already becoming a standard behaviour for travellers who are booking leave from work weeks in advance whilst only confirming their travel itinerary a few days before they leave.  The uncertainty does not stop when on holiday either, as governments introduce new restrictions, often at short notice, which may cause plans to be cut short whilst lying on the sun lounger.

Data has a key role to play in addressing these challenges, both at an individual and sector level.  For aspiring travellers, being able to search for potential destinations, especially overseas ones, based on specific criteria is vital.  In the case of those who are going to leave the choice about where to go until the last minute, having access to the latest quarantine and testing regimens is a critical component of decision making. However this intelligence is often not easily accessible.  Nor is it frequently available in a “compare the market” format that allows users to tweak different criteria to allow comparisons between locations. SafeScore is working on a solution that offers this functionality, aggregating data feeds from multiple, reliable, current data sources, and hopes to launch this service shortly.

Clearly defined travel data could help the industry on its road to recovery.

Data designed to boost travel

At a sector level, there is a role for machine learning and predictive analytics to identify trends in huge and complex travel restriction data sets.  Identifying links between disease events and subsequent government responses will be tough.  However, deep learning tools are already being developed to analyse complex systems.  Attempts to predict cryptocurrency prices based on real world events and news flows are starting to appear.  It will take a while for them to build a proven track record, but the tangible incentives are there for them to succeed.  And, if the modellers can crack the cryptocurrency challenge, who is to say that similarly talented teams cannot develop a solution for the multi-trillion dollar global travel industry?  Until then, don’t forget the Xanax.

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