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Secure, seamless, smart: Passengers embrace digitally-enabled travel

Aleksei Markachev manages SITA’s Travel Authorization products that help governments issue eVisas and Electronic Travel Authorizations (ETAs). He discusses how automating a complex process makes travel seamless and convenient while empowering governments with its human-centric approach.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your experience?

I have more than 10 years’ experience as a product manager in business-to-business (B2B) software development of artificial intelligence (AI) solutions and more than 15 years in tech. Before joining SITA, I oversaw identity-centric solutions for B2B and business-to-government (B2G) sectors. I have a deep knowledge of biometrics and platforms, the creation of cutting-edge solutions based on conversational AI, speech technologies and employment productivity.

What are today’s biggest challenges facing governments when it comes to travel authorization?

It’s all about the balance: identifying and managing security risks, while keeping the service convenient for applicants. If you think about the border, there are always three groups of travelers: the citizens of a country, visitors who need a visa, and visitors who travel visa-free.

With the first group, governments know everything about their citizens because they have already been issued with passports and had their biometric information collected.

The second group are travelers to a country who have already supplied the necessary information via an embassy or a special application center to obtain a visa, which is their authorization to travel. So, all the risk assessment has been done with the visa issuance process and governments have usually obtained all the information they require. One of the main issues for governments when dealing with this group are mistakes with manual input of biographic information and applications for the wrong type of visa; it’s actually more common than you might think.

The third group, the visa-free traveler, is the most complex from a border management and security perspective. On the one hand, you want visa-free travelers to come and go easily, but this makes security challenging for governments as they cannot predict the physical appearance of these individuals on the border. Border safety is paramount. So, border officers are keen to be equipped with more awareness and risk assessment of these visa-free travelers, while still seeking to make the immigration process as seamless as possible.

Travel authorization solutions make it possible to balance the two seemingly opposing requirements of security and seamlessness. That’s why the visa-free group are required to complete a simple Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA), even if they don’t require a visa.

Our SITA Travel Authorization solution can be used for eVisa and ETA programs simultaneously, so governments can introduce a unified process for all travelers. This enables governments to deliver the best quality of service, while unifying risk assessment standards. It is why Australia, the United States and Canada have such systems, and countries like the United Kingdom and the European Union are following suit.

What are the advantages of using a digital travel authorization solution?

The advantages are many and varied, they include improved security, reduced administrative burden and a better overall travel experience which, in turn, leads to increased visitor flows, local economy growth and job creation. For instance, one government’s introduction of an eVisa scheme covering 40 plus countries in 2014-2015 led to a 21% increase in international visitor arrivals and the creation of 800,000 jobs. Moving to an automated system was credited with boosting growth in that country’s travel and tourism sector by around 20% over the period. 

Compared to traditional visa processes, new digital approaches can optimize up to 70% of operational costs across all the phases of travel authorization process. We see major improvements in data collection and quality validation costs for the application process and multi-agency collaboration for the adjudication part of solution. Additionally, digitizing travel authorizations is often a first step towards building an integrated border management system, complete with interactive Advance Passenger Information (API) biometric services for airlines and automated border control on the ground.

The SITA Travel Authorization provides convenient channels for eVisa and ETA applications, based on digital data collection and risk assessment. Unlike digital document submission and visa appointment centers, our product is a fully digital end-to-end solution that covers digital application, adjudication, issuance and risk assessment capabilities that can be configured to each customer’s needs and any relevant legislation.

In addition, SITA’s Digital Travel Document (DTD) enables travelers to share any extra documents that governments might require. This might include arrival cards or a health or vaccination document. Using DTD reduces passenger stress and border congestion while streamlining the process for both governments and travelers.

Are travelers receptive to using automated travel authorizations?

For the traveler, we are creating and simplifying the travel experience. Imagine for a moment that you want to visit a particular country. You can create an eVisa application which takes 10 or 15 minutes instead of hours traveling to an embassy, preparing the documents and waiting in queues. Naturally, visiting that country would seem more attractive as a holiday destination.

Insights shared in the International Civil Aviation Organization’s global passenger surveys bear this out: 66% of travelers agree that applying for travel authorization online, before they travel, is the best way to obtain a visa. In addition, 83% are willing to share sensitive immigration information to expedite the airport process, while 76% expect that with digitalization, international border crossing processes should look dramatically different in terms of ease of use by 2030.

Can you provide examples of countries that have successfully implemented these systems?

A very advanced system was developed in the Middle East to make it easier for foreign visitors to attend a big international racing event. We are happy to say that since the initial implementation of that system functionality was enhanced to cover all possible visa types, permits, and additional services for travelers. This is now a one-stop-shop for travelers and is completely digital.

Another major global sporting event also saw the implementation of the first ETA in the world. About 99% of applicants to this Asia Pacific country now use the system, which has evolved into the first mobile-only ETA in the world and continues to see growth in usage. SITA was awarded the DrivenXDesign Awards in 2021 for this solution, which affirms very high customer ratings for the service on Google Play and the App Store.

Looking to the future, what can we expect next with travel authorization?

We believe that more and more governments are looking to adopt travel authorization solutions to simplify and standardize visa application processes, and to secure the visa-free programs for chosen nationals. SITA helps governments look beyond the issuance of visas as just stickers in a passport and really tap into the value of the digital travel that is created with an eVisa or ETA. For instance, the approach taken by the island nation of Aruba, which we call ‘Happy Flow’, enables travelers to book a hotel, rent a car, buy a SIM card or car insurance. This is the next evolution, and it starts with the eVisa or ETA as the first point of contact at which we collect information.