SA travel industry gives vaccine passports stamp of approval, but challenges remain

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A vaccine passport is usually in digital format and used to provide proof of vaccination.
A vaccine passport is usually in digital format and used to provide proof of vaccination.
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  • President Cyril Ramaphosa has recently indicated that SA plans to introduce a vaccine passport.
  • Already in place in some other parts of the world, a vaccine passport provides digital proof of vaccination that can be used to make travel or other types of access easier.
  • On Tuesday, a panel of travel experts provide their views on the challenges and opportunities of such a vaccine passport.


Internal vaccine passports may be on the cards for South Africa in the near future, but experts have stressed that its rollout could pose some challenges.

Government recently indicated it intended to move ahead with domestic vaccine passports, and the National Coronavirus Command Council is considering an implementation plan. It is expected that SA will have digital vaccine passports that can be used to deny access to certain places or events to those who have refused the Covid-19 vaccine.

During a panel discussion on Tuesday, hosted by Big Ambitions as part of its Big Connect webinar series, travel industry experts largely supported the idea of introducing vaccine passports, as this could assist the entire tourism value chain and reassure international visitors.

Vaccine passports would allow freer movement and offer the battered travel industry some reprieve, they argued. Several panelists pointed out the impact of rapidly shifting lockdown levels, which have drastically reduced advance bookings and cut cash flow as travellers fear sudden travel bans. Vaccine passports could provide some security, they said.  

But its rollout still poses some potential hiccups. Issues panelists raised included meeting international standards, ensuring easy data collection, and protecting users' privacy.

Andrew Stark, managing director for the Middle East and Africa of the Flight Centre Travel Group, said it is not going to be that easy to get a vaccine passport established.

"Yes, we need a digital vaccine passport, but I think we are looking for a silver bullet as there are more moving parts to address."

Stark said SA needs to have at least 67% of its population vaccinated by December. "Government and the private sector need to work in cohesion to achieve this," he said.

A vaccine passport is usually in a digital format and used to provide proof of vaccination, including information such as the type of vaccine and date(s) of vaccination, as well as batch numbers. All of this should be managed on a single platform.

Challenges

"We are thinking too hard about the platform to use, and we should rather look at the standard to easily collect, store and share the relevant data on an app. Both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) have a set of standards and we should make sure SA's vaccine passport meets those," said Otto de Vries, CEO of the Association of Southern African Travel Agents (ASATA).

He added: "One over-arching factor must remain in place and that is the protection of personal information."

Lars Thykier, chair of World Travel Agents Associations Alliance (WTAAA) and director of the European Travel Agents' and Tour Operators' Associations (ECTAA), said almost all EU countries have a QR-coded vaccine passport in place, which one has on one's phone.

It is used to travel between those countries and to gain access to restaurants and other establishments. Similar products are used in other parts of the world too.  

But he said standardisation could be tricky, as in practice, "everyone thinks theirs is the best and I do not see any short-term solution". He called for "some sort of standardisation as soon as possible".

Brian Kitchin, sales and marketing manager of Comair, noted that an oversight body would also have to be appointed. He suggested the International Air Transport Association's travel app, especially since airlines are usually tasked with checking documents and would need one standard for it.

De Vries foresees that negative Covid-19 tests will likely remain a requirement for those travellers who have not been vaccinated.

But he believes a point will be reached when those who have been fully vaccinated will be allowed "to move around freely".

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