Marriott CEO: Opening Doors to Global Travel for China and Beyond

The following is a guest post by Marriott International CEO Arne Sorenson. It was originally published on Linkedin.

Today we announced a new dimension of our partnership with e-commerce company Alibaba. This joint venture reimagines Chinese consumers’ end-to-end travel experiences by making travel easier for the 700 million outbound trips Chinese consumers are anticipated to take over the next five years, whether to nearby locations in Asia or more distant destinations like Europe and the U.S.

At Marriott International, the partnership announced today is the latest iteration of our focus on innovating the future of travel. At the heart of that future is technology that will make travel easier and safer for the nearly 2 billion international trips we’re expecting by 2030. We recently launched a partnership with Accenture and startup incubator 1776 to discover and foster startups working on innovative technologies and real-time solutions to improve the travel experience. We’ve also been partnering with the World Economic Forum, Accenture and other key public-private organizations to make seamless global travel a reality. We are working to build a new prototype to demonstrate the art of the possible in seamless and secure travel. What Marriott can’t do is facilitate the visa and border experience for our customers, but we hope that’s not too far down the road thanks to the efforts of the Forum and some forward-thinking governments who see the economic value that travel presents.

The reason we’re innovating the future of travel, outside the four walls of our hotels, is that we simply must. We speak often about the influx of travel expected by 2030—with much of the growth coming from Asia, Africa and the Middle East—but we won’t realize the economic benefits those 2 billion trips hold unless we work to modernize the antiquated systems in use today. Our aging travel framework is plagued by cumbersome visa processes, waiting in long lines and a reliance on paper documents—largely unchanged since the 1950s. With modern technologies and the right tools, we can construct a new framework for the future of travel to keep us connected and make us all safer.

Globally, the middle class is forecasted to see an increase of 3 billion people by 2031, with China leading the way. While travel is already booming in China, it is estimated that less than 10 percent of Chinese nationals have passports. Imagine the potential for major growth that lies ahead as more Chinese join the ranks of the middle class and choose to travel.

In fact, Chinese President Xi Jinping expects 700 million Chinese visits overseas in the next five years. China continues to lead global outbound travel, after registering double-digit growth in tourism expenditures every year since 2004. Spending by outbound Chinese travelers in 2016 alone reached $261 billion, as the total number of outbound travelers rose to 135 million. That’s why our partnership with Alibaba was a priority for both companies—together, we want to make travel smarter.

Other countries are catching on. In 2016, 58 percent of the world’s population was required to obtain a visa before visiting top global destinations. This is a significant improvement from 2008, when 77 percent of the world’s population had to apply for a traditional visa. The majority of countries (85 percent) have at least partially reduced the burden of obtaining a tourism visa in the past two years. The reasons are simple—jobs and economic opportunity—but that potential can’t be realized on the back of our antiquated systems.

And so, it requires all of us to work to modernize technologies that move us to a future where international travel is enabled by a digital traveler identity, built with unique biometrics. Companies like Marriott and Alibaba are advancing the development of these capabilities, as are others who are pioneering completely digital passports and visas, secure biometric technology and more.

China debuted its first facial-recognition program in airports last year, which links passengers’ photos to their boarding passes throughout the security and boarding process. If such programs are expanded and connected globally, the result will be improved security as well as better experiences along the journey as travelers become true citizens of the world.

Governments have an important role to play—building digital bridges will better integrate security agencies as well as better protect borders and people. Many countries have already taken steps to increase information-sharing with trusted allies and partners through bilateral and regional-verified traveler programs, and it should continue.

Of course, privacy is paramount. Travelers have the right to “own” their digital identity and decide who to share it with in exchange for a better travel experience.

To move from today to the travel experience of tomorrow, we’ll have to work together—across borders, through public-private partnerships, guests and travel companies. But the potential is extraordinary for our countries, our economies, our people. We’re excited to be a part of bringing to life the future of travel and proud to have such excellent partners on the journey.