This article takes a closer look at some examples of TravelTech startups in Asia-Pacific and North America that have accelerated their business or had a market launch or even expansion because of Covid-19. The appearing entrepreneurs were part of a series of interviews focusing on “Digital Life under Covid-19 and beyond” produced by Heinrich-Boell-Stiftung’s Hong Kong office for the ‘Tech & Covid-19’ series that analyses global digital trends during the pandemic.
Thinking back to the beginning of 2020, hardly anyone could have imagined not being able to travel, as traveling, whether short or long-distance, domestic or international, had become a normalcy in many people’s lives. By March 2020 over 80 countries had imposed travel bans to help control the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. Suddenly traveling became not only an inconvenience but nearly impossible. Those who had to travel were merely trying to get back to their home countries and were faced with an unprecedented reality. At once there were so numerous things to be done prior to even booking an air ticket e.g. checking and verifying whether a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test is needed before boarding, and if another PCR test will be required upon arrival at the destination. Who should be paying for these tests, and how long would it take to get the result? Will personal data be stored? Will travelers be tracked and required to quarantine? And how about personal protection equipment (PPE)? Will wearing a mask or even a hazmat suit be necessary? Are air quality and facility hygiene guaranteed before and during the journey? Will babies have to wear masks, and what happens to animals that need to be transported? Questions upon questions that need answers.
Good to know is not good enough
“An informed traveler is a safe traveler” is the motto of Dr. Ronald St. John, Epidemiologist, and Co-Founder of Canadian TravelTech Startup SITATA. Building on Dr. St. John’s 35 years professional experience including the position as the first Director General of the Centre for Emergency Preparedness and Response at the Public Health Agency of Canada, the father and son duo launched their initial travel alert services to travelers in 2012. Since then the software in action has evolved as is nowadays using artificial intelligence (AI) machine learning. SITATA’s mission is to keep traveler’s worry free by monitoring global news, travel and government websites as well as social media. The gathered information is then processed, filtered and results are presented to experts which then issue travel alerts based on their nature including disease outbreaks, transit strikes, natural disasters, and violent protests to their users. In January 2020 SITATA issued the first travel alert regarding the novel Coronavirus based on intelligence their AI was collecting. A few weeks later www.covidchecker.com was launched to help stressed travelers to check and find necessary travel information around Covid-19 on one platform.
With the arrival of a vaccine, Adam St. John’s outlook for the TravelTech industry is that “industry players will focus even more post-Covid-19 on building stronger partnerships with tourism and transport providers to build travel confidence, lower travel anxieties, and increase health as well as safety for travelers”.
Aside from a global pandemic, there were always possibilities for disruption of travels such as earthquakes, typhoons, volcano eruptions, etc.
A similar event experienced Akemi Tsunawaga, Founder & CEO of Japanese TravelTech startup Bespoke, when she got stuck on the 20 floor of a building after the nuclear reactor explosion in Fukushima in 2011 - an area popular with tourists. The chaos, the lack of information, and crisis response had a significant impact on Tsunawaga, and that horrifying experience was the source to create a system that would going forward a few years, inform and alarm travelers in case of emergency. In a country like Japan in which the vast majority of the population only speaks Japanese, obtaining information in another language than Japanese can be at times rather challenging. When the pandemic hit Japan in March 2020 a lot of travelers were still skiing or on a cruise, hundreds of flights were cancelled and thousands of people were stranded. That was when the Japanese Government and Airport operators approached Bespoke for help and they provided - BEBOT CrisisConnect an automated messaging using AI for emergency communication in real time. Residents and travelers alike can ask questions and receive health specific information, latest news on Covid-19 related measures, contact information to government agencies among others.
According to Tsunawaga who has launched her product in other countries including the United States and Austria “this technology is helping many people who are scared of human interaction, especially with strangers. There is a big shift in societies into using tech to avoid human contact, where available.”
Preparation is everything
Asia’s leading genetic testing and digital health company Prenetics, based in Hong Kong, had swiftly adopted their business operations to fight the pandemic. Danny Yeung, CEO & Co-Founder reevaluated the company's position and started looking at the business from a level of responsibility. “Instead of playing on the sidelines we wanted to actually help with the epidemic response, and decided to help people getting actual results in Hong Kong and the U.K.'' Project Screen by Circle was designed to make PCR testing available to the large public at a reasonable price. Besides, Prenetics as the only Hong Kong-based company was selected for the Hong Kong government-sponsored COVID-19 testing program to test approximately 200,000 employees across 16,000 restaurants, supermarkets, wet markets and other facilities. “The biggest problem right now is, it is still challenging and expensive to do a test”, so Yeung which is why he and his team have partnered with The Commons Project to work on a Digital Health Passport to facilitate rapid and frequent PCR testing. The idea is to upload negative test results to an App right after testing at the Airport, which will then allow smooth and safe travels - for everyone.
According to Yeung, a new normal for the Travel and HealthTech industry can only exist with frequent testing that is accessible and affordable. Such conditions will provide hardly any room for counterfeit PCR negative test certificates as well as vaccine certificates. A solution to the latter could be a blockchain powered global vaccine registry - which with today’s innovative solutions is absolutely possible.