COVID-19 secure borders: Using technology to safely reopen travel to the Seychelles islands

On March 25, 2021 the small island nation of the Seychelles made the difficult decision to fully open its borders to international visitors for the second time – vaccinated or not – and welcome tourists back to its shores. A huge risk in uncertain times, surely? Apparently not.

More than six months on and our borders are open to nearly any and everyone wishing to visit. Unlike our peers in the region, and globally, we have not come close to deciding to shut our borders again or to increase entry restrictions. In fact, our entry requirements have steadily been whittled down, with more than 150,000 travelers processed this year alone.

Our secret? A state-of-the-art electronic Travel Authorization and Advance Passenger Information system that has helped us to pre-screen and vet passengers for health and other security risks before they step foot on our soil. We have come a long way from July 2020, when we were manually replying to each and every application for entry via email, to using AI and machine learning to validate and verify health documents, cross-check watchlists and collect actionable data to enable real-time decision making.

Obsolete systems: adapting to a post-COVID reality
Pre-COVID, more than 460,000 people crossed our border each year. And we faced the same challenges as many other countries: a lack of information about who was coming into the country, and why; a reliance on inefficient paper forms and manual data entry; long queues at border control; and an inability to trace foreigners in-country.

But COVID-19 shook the world from top to bottom, turning everything on its head and shining a harsh light on the fragility of our inter-agency border security system. It became clear early on that the old way of doing things was not fit-for-purpose. “Border Security” was no longer the domain of law enforcement and immigration agents, but now included public health officials who required access to information, systems and processes they never had before.

This unprecedented shift put new people in the driver’s seat – and I can tell you from direct experience, doctors make for wonderful intelligence analysts, perhaps because they learned long ago not to rely only on what their patients tell them, but to filter their responses through judgement and expertise and a keen understanding of patient motivations – but our legacy systems were unable to adapt and support this huge change. We were witnessing the transformation of a system heretofore primarily used to record who was entering our country – after all, we are a visa-free country – to being repurposed to validate travel and health documents with constantly changing entry restrictions. The two strategies – manually record people on arrival but screening them before they come – just couldn’t match up without a fundamental overhaul and redesign of our border system – and in the summer of 2020, we had very little time or budget to attain it.

From Analog to Digital: forcing a paradigm shift
A national taskforce was established to support the reopening of our borders to get our economy going again, while protecting our citizens from the health risk of COVID-19 which was raging in the world.
It has been said that necessity is the mother of invention. Never was this more true than with this global shock, which forced all our different agencies and departments to come together and work as one towards a common goal. The emergency situation provided the right framework and crucially, an appetite for a solution, across government. COVID-19 was still mutating and variants were cropping up around the world – so we had to find a flexible, agile solution that could evolve with us as we learned more about the virus. It was immediately obvious to everyone that an innovative digital solution would be needed, as any email or paper based system would be far too ungainly and difficult for travelers, and for agencies to analyse and use the data so collected.

Finding the right solution was a careful balancing act. Our Public Health Authority was extremely cautious, understandably given how little was known about COVID-19 at the time. They leaned to more stringent travel restrictions to keep the country insulated for as long as possible. On the other side, we had business owners, the tourism industry and our Ministry of Finance, pushing for the economy to reopen. Safely yes, but efficiently and quickly, as national finances were being depleted. Our Ministry was in the hot seat – our Minister was the chair of the national taskforce, and tried to build consensus and bring people together.

Pandemic proof: Implementing a Health Travel Authorization
After extensive deliberations and a weighing of proposed candidate solutions, we selected Travizory, a border security company, to digitize our existing health measures and overhaul our COVID-19 screening processes. Within 4 weeks, the Seychelles Islands Travel Authorization was up and running – providing a digital, contactless and paperless experience for travelers and officials.

Almost overnight, the approval process dropped from 24 hours to 3.5 hours on average. Doctors and nurses no longer had to manually reply to emails from travelers, but could instead focus on organized information about travelers, testing, and contact tracing.

In just six steps, travelers were able to apply for approval to travel to the Seychelles online and later through a bespoke app, in the language of their choice. The documents submitted through the system were examined by health and immigration officers, and individuals were authorized to travel before they departed their country of origin. Our system delivered obvious benefits to the traveler – but also to airlines and to our agencies at home.

We knew first hand that many airlines were struggling to obey each country’s rules, as COVID-19 restrictions were changing almost hourly – causing chaos and confusion at check-in. With our technology, airlines no longer had to check a lengthy and ever-changing list of requirements for the Seychelles. Our authorities were responsible for approving travelers and, using the unique digital travel credentials issued by our system, airlines could easily ascertain whether a traveler was able to board the flight. Likewise, on arrival, travelers only had to show their unique QR code to officials who could sort them on whether they were approved to enter, approved subject to quarantine, or approved subject to further testing or questioning.

Our ambition was to stop travelers from boarding in the first place if they did not meet minimum national health requirements for entry (namely, a negative and freshly taken PCR test result and stay at an approved accommodation) and to do this in the most efficient way possible.

The data collected from the new health screening also supported contact tracing efforts by health officials. If a traveler displayed symptoms during their stay, officials were able to swiftly call up information from the system to find out where the traveler had been seated on their arriving flights, who they were traveling with, and where they had been staying during their trip. This took a huge burden off of our health officials and reassured them that we could reopen and keep Seychelles a COVID-safe destination for our community and for tourists.

More than just health – addressing other national priorities
But the challenge didn’t stop with COVID. The Seychelles unfortunately is known for its significant drug problem – we have one of the highest rates of heroin use per capita in the world. This scourge was threatening to ruin the future of many of our young men and women and the government had implemented a national strategy to tackle it.

Part of the strategy was to secure our borders and to stop the importation of illegal drugs. As the Principal Secretary for Civil Aviation and Chair of the National Air Transport Facilitation Committee, it had always been my intention to implement a comprehensive system that could support all our security needs and tackle every threat. I knew the same digital system we had introduced to combat the health crisis had the potential to increase oversight and security of our borders – enabling collaboration, efficiency and effectiveness – and that we couldn’t let the opportunity slip through our fingers.

Working with our technology partners, we ensured that one of the goals from the outset was to maximize border security, not only health security. The immediate health crisis may have been inciting event, but above all else, we could use the moment to be ahead of the curve and anticipate future and evolving threats, whether that be future pandemics, terrorism, drug trafficking, human trafficking or money laundering . Any system that we implemented had to be nimble and flexible, and be capable of adapting to the threats of the day.

Meeting international standards: implementing API/PNR
It was key for us that any platform we adopted would have to be easy to navigate for the officers using it and that it should reflect how the officers actually work.

Taking traveler data collected via the Travel Authorization and combining it with API/PNR data from airlines, we were able to develop an unparalleled view of our travelers, combining real-time data from multiple sources to mitigate security & health risks. We created a simple icon-led view that captures COVID-19, API/PNR and watchlist data so that risky passengers were easily flagged for further examination.

Officers were also able to dig deeper into individual flights as needed, and were able to review any passenger and their status prior to departure, all the way up to the point that they embarked the flight.
The intuitive design of our system meant limited training was necessary, and very little downtime as the new system was enhanced in real-time as people were using it. The interactive interface with AI and in-built Machine Learning gave us the ability to screen passengers against international watchlists, establish relationships between groups and categorize passengers based on risk profile.

Today, I am very proud to say that we are the first country in Africa to have met the UN/ICAO mandate to implement API-PNR and that we did it in record time during a pandemic. We take our responsibility to our visitors, our citizens and the international community seriously, and do all we can to make international travel safer and more secure for all, in our small way. Fifteen international and national watchlists are integrated into the platform, and to date more than 800,000 individual passenger records have been screened. We recently integrated with the INTERPOL Stolen and Lost Travel Documents (STLD) database, guaranteeing the highest level of oversight and control of our borders.

Facing the future: Maritime security and biometric borders
Our quest for excellence is not over and working with our partner, Travizory, we are applying the lessons we have learned in aviation to the maritime sector. With over 1.48 million square km of ocean territory, it is crucial that we know who is in our waters, why and for how long.

Digital borders aren’t just about monitoring air passengers, we have to monitor all entry points to our nation and be prepared to react as needed. I had an epiphany one morning when I realised every island in our archipelago was theoretically a border point, and I wondered if we were properly screening all inbound aircraft and boats. From November 2021, we intend to introduce a maritime extension of our border management system for cruise ships, private yachts and other marine vessels. Fully integrated with the existing Seychelles Islands Travel Authorization and Advance Passenger Information systems, our newly enhanced system will vet all vessels that enter Seychelles waters, and passengers and crew will be required to pre-apply for entry into the country through a single window on the ship side.

We are on a mission to remove all manual processing at our air and sea ports. I believe it is highly likely that in the near future, people will be able to travel using only their faces. With pre-vetting and facial recognition, the era of paper forms, physical travel documents and multiple checkpoints on arrival should become a legacy experience of the past and I would like the Seychelles to be at the lead of this. At our airport, we are installing a biometric corridor this year, to allow passengers to walk off the plane, straight through duty free and on to baggage claim with to be waved through if all the preclearance checks have been met and our officers judge nothing awry. As with any system, our human officers will still have a vital role to play in making sure no one falls through the cracks and I believe the shift we have made will give officers even greater room to profile and risk-assess more effectively.

Innovation is not a word commonly associated with government projects, and even less so for sectors like border security – but faced with the choice of watching our tourism-dependent economy collapse overnight or taking a technologically-powered leap of faith to reopen, innovation really was a no-brainer.

by Alan Renaud, Principal Secretary for Civil Aviation, Ports and Maritime, Seychelles Ministry of Transport