How your room-access bracelet might become a tracking device

Feb 3, 2021

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Since 2013, the travel industry has been replacing easy-to-lose room cards and cumbersome, old-fashioned keys with room-access wristbands.

These wearable room keys can be worn in the shower, pool and ocean, and won’t get lost at the bottom of your bag or dropped on the ground. Some can even be connected to your hotel account and your credit cards, so you can seamlessly make purchases during your trip. But because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the uses for these bracelets and wristbands have evolved. Some are now capable of tracking your whereabouts.

Marriott Kauai key bracelet January 2021. (Photo by Clint Henderson:The Points Guy)

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Room-access bracelets, which function with a radio frequency identification (RFID) chip, first made a splash in the tourism sector when Disney’s MagicBand appeared at the Florida theme parks in 2013. Taking the place of a visitor’s admittance ticket and FastPasses, MagicBands also allow parkgoers to make on-property purchases and enable keyless entry for resort guests.

Wearables debuted on the open seas in 2014 when Royal Caribbean launched its Wow Bands. Three years later, Princess Cruises debuted its Ocean Medallion technology. This wireless gadget can be worn as a bracelet or discreet pendant necklace, and it enables contactless boarding, keyless stateroom entry and onboard payments for everything from drinks to purchases in shipboard shops.

Cruisers can even use it to track the whereabouts of friends and family on the ship, and crew members can check a passenger’s medallion to make sure they’ve completed the mandatory safety training.

In this way, wearables have evolved far beyond room-access bracelets. Now, instead of just making it possible to keep an eye on your kids while they’re having fun at a watery splash zone, these devices are now capable of keeping tabs on travelers who are quarantined due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

As part of Kauai’s so-called “enhanced movement quarantine,” six resorts on the Hawaiian island use a mobile app paired with a wearable surveillance device to ensure guests comply with a mandatory 72-hour quarantine upon arrival. Some properties provide the bracelets for free, while others charge guests up to $100.

Aqua quarantine monitoring bracelet. (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

Related: I spent 3 days quarantining with a resort tracking bracelet in Hawaii: Here’s what to know for Kauai

The British Virgin Islands also mandate that guests wear tracking bracelets. Arriving passengers, including residents and citizens, must take a COVID-19 test at the airport and use a contact-tracing system on their phones linked to a government-issued wristband during a four-day quarantine before being tested again. The two required tests, the mobile contact tracing app and monitoring bracelet are provided at the visitor’s expense, costing approximately $175.

“Bracelets were implemented to ensure compliance with protocols without the intrusive presence of security guards,” Clive McCoy, director of tourism at the British Virgin Islands Tourist Board, told TPG. “Some guests aren’t fond of the wristbands, but most recognize that compliance is necessary to promote the health and safety of all.”

Hong Kong has been using the bracelets to track quarantining passengers since March of 2020. Travel writer Yung Nam Cheah returned home to Hong Kong that month and, during the mandated 14-day quarantine, wore a government-issued wristband with a QR code and monitoring phone app. She risked a fine if she left her home. “I don’t feel like the wristband violated my privacy. It’s not too much to ask in the face of a pandemic,” she said to TPG, but admitted that the wristband wasn’t comfortable to wear every hour of every day for two weeks.

One of the tracking bracelets used for arrivals in Hong Kong to monitor and track the spread of COVID-19. (Photo by Olivier Chouchana/Getty Images)

Some travelers actually feel safer because of COVID-19 safety wristbands. “When I was in Belgium, the wristband vibrated whenever a person came … closer than 9.8 feet. This wristband is an absolute necessity, especially in areas where lockdown is still not lifted,” said Andre Robles of Voyagers Travel. But Robles said that “wristbands must immediately be removed once the pandemic is over” because they could “become an issue for privacy.”

And the issue of safety and privacy with wearable technology didn’t originate during the pandemic.

Room-access bracelets allow hotel staff and security to identify guests of the property, for example, but they could also put guests at risk. Jeff Cortese, former acting chief of the FBI’s Public Corruption Unit, told TPG that wearing the bracelets off site identifies you as a tourist and gives strangers some insight into your finances. “The wristband can make tourists a target for exploitation — not just for vendors, food service providers, souvenir shopkeepers and taxis, but also for more nefarious criminals like fraudsters and kidnap-and-ransom crews,” said Cortese.

Mary Chong, who used the medallion on a Princess Cruises Crown Princess voyage last year, said that even though the plastic cases and lanyards were “an eyesore,” the “room-access bracelet is perfect when your hands are full, as you don’t fumble with a key card.” But Chong told TPG she always took the medallion off during shore excursions so people wouldn’t know she was on a cruise.

Related: Travelers can now wear a button to avoid government quarantine in the Cayman Islands

My first experience with room-access bracelets was at Le Blanc in Cancún. The beachfront resort uses vinyl wristbands for room access and requires all guests to wear them for security measures.

Jabib Chapur, the property’s vice president of operations, told TPG the bracelets don’t interfere with the guest experience. But when I left the resort to order a churro from a street cart, I was aghast when I was charged nearly $3 for a plain churro when the person in front of me paid less than a dollar for the same order. The vendor might have made assumptions about what I could pay by analyzing the cost of the hotel where I was staying.

As I walked back to the resort, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was too easy for passersby to know where I was going. I was so uncomfortable, I decided not to leave the property again.

And I’m not the only traveler who dislikes wearing room-access bracelets. Some travelers dislike having something around their wrist and say it’s uncomfortable.

Malou Morgan received a nylon room-access bracelet at Sugar Bay Barbados, but found the material wasn’t great for water activities. “It was wet and damp for the entire weekend as we dipped in and out of the sea,” adding that it “caused slight [wrist] irritation.”

For vanity reasons, room-access bracelets can also cause a tan line, and they erode some of the glamor of dressing up on vacation. It’s tough to find a plastic wristband that coordinates with your outfit.

A bracelet for customers to enter sanitized bathrooms at a private beach In Italy. (Photo by VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)

There are also environmental concerns. Most properties don’t reuse the bracelets. Chapur, of Le Blanc, said their beachfront resort uses plastic-free vinyl wristbands, but they still generate more waste than a keycard, which can be reprogrammed.

Temptation Cancun Resort has thread bracelets tied to a piece of PVC plastic containing a microchip. When Joni Sweet stayed at the property, she said she “loved not having to worry about losing a key,” but “didn’t love that [she] couldn’t take [the wristband] off for photos or when [she was] sleeping.”

Still, the bands work. Patric Loeser, the general manager at Temptation, told TPG the microchips are reused and only replaced when damaged. “We were having an average of 1,800 lost keys a month,” he said. “Because bracelets have a lower misplacement rate, we’re finding we can reuse the bracelets more than we were able to reuse cards.”

At PalmaÏa, the House of AÏA (a wellness retreat in Mexico) room-access bracelets are incredibly inconspicuous. The reusable, handmade beaded bracelet only show the hotel’s logo, and can easily go entirely unnoticed.

Bottom line

With more travel providers (and entire nations) turning to wearable technology in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19 amongst travelers, we’ll likely see new innovations in the wearable space. A single device could become your room key card, a quarantine monitor, theme park pass and mobile payment device.

It could even use biotechnology to monitor your health, like the buttons deployed by the Cayman Islands to help travelers enjoy a reduced quarantine period.

But hopefully, these wearable devices will become increasingly comfortable, eco-friendly and more discreet, so guests and travelers aren’t easily singled out — and aren’t deterred from using the technology in future applications.

Featured photo by Ziga Plahutar/Getty Images.

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