World Reimagined

World Reimagined: Can Digital Vaccine Passports Help Save the Tourism Industry?

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Amid another round of surging COVID-19 case counts, there is keen interest to leverage technology to facilitate the re-opening of the global economy. Following the pandemic that led to the near-collapse of the travel and tourism industry, a fall that dealt a harsh economic blow over the last year, there are several initiatives underway to help revive that industry, with digital vaccine passports being one of the more prominent efforts.

The Economic Devastation from Covid to Travel & Tourism

According to data published by the World Travel & Tourism Council (WWTC), the Travel & Tourism sector accounted for 10.3% of global GDP and roughly 330 million jobs in 2019. That industry came to a grinding halt when the COVID-19 pandemic led to restrictions and lockdowns, curbing travel and other economic activity. As a result, that sector’s contribution to global GDP in 2020 fell by 49.1% to €4 trillion in 2020, roughly 5.5% of the global economy according to WTTC findings. That sharp drop contributed to the decline in global GDP in 2020, which contracted 3.5% per data from the International Monetary Fund.

Gloria Guevara, WTTC President & CEO, said, “With the sector’s contribution to GDP plunging by almost half, it’s more important than ever that Travel & Tourism is given the support needed so it can help power the economic recovery, which will be instrumental in enabling the world to revive from the effects of the pandemic.”

Along with global vaccine rollout, the WTTC said the introduction of digital health passes would support the tourism sector's recovery in 2021 and 2022.

Enter the Vaccine Passport

The health pass is what’s come to be referred to as a vaccine passport, which is proof that you’ve tested negative for or have been protected against certain infections. While the term may be new for many, this is actually not a new concept. International travelers to Ghana, parts of South America, and Afghanistan will share they’ve had to carry a yellow card to prove they had been vaccinated against diseases such as yellow fever, tuberculosis, cholera, and rubella. These yellow cards were referred to as vaccine cards or medical passports. Other similar medical passports are or were used to protect against smallpox, polio, and meningococcal meningitis, for example. 

Essentially a vaccine passport is a new version of the “Yellow Card” that has been updated to reflect our digital world by taking advantage of our smartphones. Digital vaccine passports are considered more secure and more efficient than paper documents. In January, President Biden issued an executive order directing agencies to assess the feasibility of linking coronavirus vaccinations to vaccine cards and producing a digital version. More recently, it was revealed that the Biden administration would work with the private sector to build a vaccine credential program that would allow people to prove they’ve been inoculated against COVID-19.

In late March, the Excelsior Pass app, which shares vaccination and negative test results with art and entertainment venues and businesses by using a scannable QR code, was launched. Per the New York State COVID-19 Vaccine website, this is how the Excelsior Pass works:

“Attend sporting events, arts performances, and more! Excelsior Pass supports a safe reopening of New York by providing a free, fast, and secure way to present digital proof of COVID-19 vaccination or negative test results. Think of it as a mobile airline boarding pass, but for proving you received a COVID-19 vaccination or negative test.

You can store your Pass digitally on your smartphone with the Excelsior Pass Wallet app, available for free from the Apple App Store and Google Play Store. You can also print your Pass from the Excelsior Pass website and bring it with you.

Businesses and venues can scan and validate your pass to ensure you meet any COVID-19 vaccination or testing requirements for entry. Along with your Pass, you’ll be asked to show a photo ID that shows your name and birth date to verify that the Pass belongs to you.”

The Excelsior Pass is only one of many initiatives. IBM (IBM) is working on a "digital health pass" that uses blockchain technology "to bring people back to a physical location, such as a workplace, school, stadium or airline flight."

The Vaccination Credential Initiative is another effort that consists of a collection of public and private companies -- including Cerner (CERN), Microsoft (MSFT), the Mayo Clinic, Oracle (ORCL), and Salesforce (CRM) as well as hospitals and pharmacies that are administering vaccines -- working together to develop “COVID-19 vaccine digital passport technology.” The Initiative, which targets testing this spring, is striving to provide people with encrypted digital copies of their immunization records in a digital wallet of their choice that also provides governments and employers access to a “solid, widely accepted verification program.

Other large entities are also developing their own passport solution. The global airline industry’s International Air Transport Association is developing a mobile application called "Travel Pass" that displays coronavirus test results or proof of inoculation. The free Travel Pass is being piloted by 14 non-U.S. airlines and is expected to be available in iOS and Android app stores soon.

Public Sector Efforts

The European Union recently proposed a "Digital Green Certificate to facilitate the safe, free movement of citizens within the EU during the COVID-19 pandemic." Like the other passes described above, it would be digital proof that the person has been vaccinated, tested negative, or recovered from the coronavirus. Over in the UK, survey findings from Ipsos MORI found that 78% of Britons surveyed support the idea of vaccine passports. On April 5, the British government is expected to provide an update on its vaccine passport prospects. Several countries have embraced the concept of a vaccine passport for their citizens, including China and Denmark. Similarly, other nations such as Iceland and Greece have welcomed vaccinated travelers from across the globe.

In Asia, digital vaccine passports will make their debut in Japan in the coming weeks and will be available through a mobile app linked to the government's vaccination program. South Korea is leveraging blockchain technology to introduce a digital certification system to verify a person’s COVID-19 vaccine status. These passports will join China’s International Travel Health Certificate (ITHC) that launched on March 9, which according to China’s foreign ministry, houses a person’s coronavirus test results, vaccination records, and antibody test results. Interestingly, to sign up, a user enters their passport number in a foreign ministry-owned mini program on Tencent’s WeChat instant-messaging platform. Face recognition technology is used to verify your identity before producing the certificate.

The "But"

The above shows a clear sign there is vested economic interest in jump-starting the travel and tourism industry to help revive the global economy. And while leveraging technology can lead to a more secure set of solutions, one of the downsides of our increasingly connected and digital society is the risk of personal information and privacy being compromised.

Even as the growing list of companies and other entities race to bring digital vaccine passports to market, the looming questions to ask are ones of standardization, potential privacy violations amid the growing number of data privacy and protection laws, and how to build user trust amid increasingly frequent cyberattacks. But as we’ve seen in the past, pain points cry out for solutions, and given the economic benefits of jumpstarting the tourism industry, there will likely be an effort towards enabling travelers to be able to safely undertake their journeys.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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Chris Versace

Christopher (Chris) Versace is the Chief Investment Officer and thematic strategist at Tematica Research. The proprietary thematic investing framework that he’s developed over the last decade leverages changing economic, demographic, psychographic and technology landscapes to identify pronounced, multi-year structural changes. This framework sits at the heart of Tematica’s investment themes and indices and builds on his more than 25 years analyzing industries, companies and their business models as well as financial statements. Versace is the co-author of “Cocktail Investing: Distilling Everyday Noise into Clear Investing Signals” and hosts the Thematic Signals podcast. He is also an Assistant Professor at NJCU School of Business, where he developed the NJCU New Jersey 50 Index.

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Lenore Elle Hawkins

Lenore Elle Hawkins has, for over a decade, served as a founding partner of Calit Advisors, a boutique advisory firm specializing in mergers and acquisitions, private capital raise, and corporate finance with offices in Italy, Ireland, and California. She has previously served as the Chief Macro Strategist for Tematica Research, which primarily develops indices for Exchange Traded Products, co-authored the book Cocktail Investing, and is a regular guest on a variety of national and international investing-oriented television programs. She holds a degree in Mathematics and Economics from Claremont McKenna College, an MBA in Finance from the Anderson School at UCLA and is a member of the Mont Pelerin Society.

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Mark Abssy

Mark Abssy is Head of Indexing at Tematica Research focused on index and Exchange Traded Product development. He has product development and management experience with Indexes, ETFs, ETNs, Mutual Funds and listed derivatives. In his 25 year career he has held product development and management positions at NYSE|ICE, ISE ETF Ventures, Morgan Stanley, Fidelity Investments and Loomis Sayles. He received a BSBA from Northeastern University with a focus in Finance and International Business.

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