Tourism today accounts for 1 in 11 jobs. It is also the second largest industry globally, representing 9.5% of global GDP. As such, tourism has a huge potential for growth and job creation. Yet, it is being held back by outdated travel practices. While we place a great emphasis on the benefits of globalization and free trade, more often than not we forget to think of tourism as an export and the necessity to remove restrictions on the movement of travellers.
Looking at visa practices, it is obvious that the travel and tourism industry has not kept up with the pace of changes in the global economy. For many, getting a visa to travel to a foreign country can be a challenge, and it deters tourists from travelling by imposing additional costs on their travel plans. This is not just about money. Visa applicants often have to travel far to apply through a consulate and have to wait long periods of time before getting their visa approved. Research shows that by improving visa processes, the G20 economies could generate an estimated additional $35 billion to $206 billion in tourism receipts by 2015, which would result in as many as 5.1 million new jobs.
But visas aren’t the only issue. Another barrier to travel is the airport experience. How often do you wait in long queues to pass through airport security, only to get in line again to have your documents inspected by immigration and customs officers? These repetitive obstacles would be justifiable if they improved security, but they don’t necessarily.
With a Smart Travel approach, travellers would submit only to one process, starting with their visa application and carrying their personal information over to follow them through airport screening and border control. This would assign responsibility to verify passenger information and ensure that it is cross-checked with international databases like Interpol, which had flagged the two stolen passports involved in the recent Malaysian Airlines tragedy.
So how can we make the visa process work better? The first step is to take a hard look at the barriers in place and remove those that are unnecessary or for which the costs outweigh the benefits. We need to eliminate repetition and better use advanced technology to reduce travel times while enhancing security.
The introduction of “visa on arrival”, “trusted traveller” and electronic visa programmes also enhance convenience for travellers and create an information infrastructure that can be linked to the security screening process. Many countries have taken steps in this direction. For instance, there is the US and Mexico’s plan to collaborate by opening up their trusted traveller programme, and India’s announcement that passengers from many countries would be able to get visas on arrival.
While eliminating visa requirements worldwide is unrealistic in the short term, countries can start facilitating travel by creating common visa areas. By enabling travellers to visit more than one country with one visa, travellers are able to save time and money, and countries enhance their attractiveness, while sharing some costs in visa processing and better cooperation on security and border control. A number of regions support this premise, and have taken action, such as the Schengen Area, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and APEC.
While it is clear that a common visa requires interstate collaboration on politically sensitive matters and presents several legal and implementation challenges, none of these challenges are insurmountable. Like the smartphone, which transformed the telecommunications and media industries, we believe that smart travel can revolutionize the travel and tourism sector and bring job creation and growth along with it.
Read our new report on Smart Travel from the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on New Models of Travel and Tourism.
Author: Tiffany Misrahi is a Community Manager on the World Economic Forum’s Mobility Industries team.
Image: Passengers in a terminal at the Charles-de-Gaulle airport in Roissy, near Paris. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier