Travel Innovation and Technology Trends 2024

Is the travel industry ready for CBDCs?

This is a preview of the full report:
CBDCs are Coming: Is the Travel Industry (and the World) Ready?

In 2021, the cryptocurrency market regained the public’s attention as the value of one Bitcoin broke through its previous all-time high of nearly $20,000 to reach a price of almost $70,000. However, in 2022, the market suffered numerous high-profile failures, including the crash in value of stablecoin provider Terra’s UST and the collapse of crypto exchange FTX. By 2024, the fallout from those events and others, and subsequent bear market (in which many cryptocurrencies fell 90% from their heights), meant that crypto had once again faded from the average person’s consciousness. 

Although sentiment turned positive as Bitcoin rallied and again crossed $70,000 in March 2024, driven by the approval of Bitcoin ETFs (which allow investment in futures contracts rather than cryptocurrency itself), concern regarding the market still lingers for many. This concern has been heightened by pending governmental regulations designed to limit cryptocurrency growth, such as the Security and Exchange Commission’s litigation efforts classifying many cryptocurrencies as securities. The regulator has filed lawsuits against 31 crypto firms it accused of violating U.S. securities law. Although the SEC ended one of its investigations in June, given the crypto sector’s tumultuous history it is unsurprising that many in the travel industry have dismissed cryptocurrency as a passing fad, as they did after the comparable 2017 crypto and blockchain hype bubble popped. 

However, flying under the typical travel industry radar is the fact that the central banks of many nations have begun issuing digital currencies of their own. These Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDCs) have characteristics similar to cryptocurrencies, but with one critical difference: As opposed to the decentralized nature of many cryptocurrencies, with Bitcoin being the prime example, CBDCs are fully centralized and have been created, promoted and controlled by existing central banks. For more on centralization versus decentralization, see The Decentralized Computing Future (2021). 

The purpose of a CBDC is to act as a digital version of a country’s currency. As few travel suppliers and retailers currently accept digital currency today, the introduction of state-sponsored digital currency adds a new wrinkle to the types of payments that would need to be accepted. Phocuswright’s forthcoming Global Travel Payments Report 2024 illustrates the lag in acceptance of digital currencies, with seven in 10 travel companies having no plans to accept them (see Figure 1). 

This Research Insights article is a preview of the full analysis CBDCs are Coming: Is the Travel Industry (and the World) Ready?, which explores the latest trends in CBDCs, their overall impact, and what is needed on the travel supplier/retailer end to accept CBDCs. The dust has not settled on the CBDC issue, but clearly multiple governments are pushing ahead with their CBDC efforts, and preparations need to be made. 

Phocuswright's full report CBDCs are Coming: Is the Travel Industry (and the World) Ready? is part of the larger content series Travel Innovation and Technology Trends 2024

CBDC’s Impact on the Travel Industry

To succeed, CBDCs need to fit within the current payment infrastructure. A central bank may issue this digital money to financial institutions for distribution, or even directly to a consumer’s digital wallet. The consumer would pay at checkout much the same way they do today with a phone. The only caveat is that the wallet needed for this transaction must be a software wallet that stores value. For a description of wallet types, see Who Owns the Customer? How About the Customers Themselves!. The article also addresses the need for software wallets to hold self-sovereign identity (SSI) profiles. If CBDCs proliferate, these may act as a means for greater distribution of software wallets as well.

While consumer adoption of digital currencies thus far has been slow, full rollouts of CBDCs in the coming years means most consumers will have access to digital currency as a form of payment.

To prepare for the emergence of CBDCs, travel companies should: 

  1. Evaluate global markets, recognize those that are advancing their CBDC timetable, and analyze its impact on travel payment strategies. 
  2. Join working groups such as the European Central Bank’s “Call for candidates to participate in the digital euro scheme infrastructure-related requirements workstream.” 
  3. Assign a team or individual to become educated on CBDCs, track their progress and contribute to a strategy for CBDC acceptance based on overall market acceptance.  

While consumer adoption of digital currencies thus far has been slow, full rollouts of CBDCs in the coming years means most consumers will have access to digital currency as a form of payment. The travel industry currently struggles with alternative forms of payment, and therefore the shift to full digital currencies, even those provided by the government, will require broad industry collaboration. In Phocuswright’s forthcoming Global Travel Payments Report 2024, travel companies of all sizes and in various geographies exhibit a resistance to the adoption Alternative Forms of Payment (AFPs), though global acceptance is growing in other industries (see Figure 2). 


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