Roger Dow, CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, in his annual State of the Travel Industry speech, called for aggressive government initiatives to create travel’s “Next Great Chapter” through massive federal funding and other initiatives. He delivered the speech in a live webcast from the National Press Club in Washington D.C. on Wednesday.
Dow said that since March the industry has suffered more than $500 billion in pandemic related losses and travel industry unemployment climbed to 51% – more than double the national rate at the height of the Great Depression.
U.S. Travel, said Dow, has been working with President Biden’s administration on policies that can be adopted in his first 100 days to jump-start travel and boost the economy.
He said this means: first getting a handle on the virus through vaccines and health and safety practices; second, establishing a national plan to build confidence in domestic travel through clear public health guidance and boosting travel demand with aggressive economic stimulus measures; and third, safely reopening international travel through risk-based COVID-19 testing protocols and removing international travel bans.
In answer to media questions after his speech, Dow said U.S. Travel is opposed to testing for COVID-19 passengers on domestic flights but in favor of it for international routes. He said the association is also opposed to quarantines because they are “disruptive” and difficult to enforce. Dow said that a layered approach that includes health and safety protocols and testing would work better than quarantines. ”I would not go anywhere,” said Dow, “if I had to sit in a hotel room for 14 days.”
While some predict that the recovery of travel will take five years, Dow said that was “far too long” and that implementing recommended policies would dramatically shorten that period. He said the country needs to make sure all travel businesses—hotels, airlines, attractions, theme parks, rental car companies, cruise lines, independent tour operators, travel agencies and so many others—can sustain themselves through this crisis.
Dow said the U.S. should set a national goal of welcoming 116 million international visitors annually by 2028 and reestablish this country as the most welcoming in the world. The U.S. welcomed 79 million international visitors in 2019, which plummeted to 19 million in 2020 (almost all in the first quarter of the year) and that number is projected to be 33 million this year. Dow also told the media that the world had witnessed the attack on the Capitol and that only by welcoming international visitors could the U.S. demonstrate to them that this is a safe country.
U.S. Travel, said Dow, is calling on the federal government to invest $550 billion in highways, transit systems, passenger rail and airports over the next five years. He said the country must also prioritize funding for national parks so they can continue to tackle their deferred maintenance projects and welcome visitors in a sustainable way. But he said the country “needs to dream bigger” — to look beyond existing systems and invest in new modes of transportation.
Dow called on the government to provide policies and incentives to safely bring back meetings and events, saying while “we are all grateful for Zoom,” it is no substitute for in-person meetings. He called on the government to prioritize infrastructure, saying that even before the pandemic, the country’s aging, underperforming infrastructure made it increasingly difficult to get around.
The country must also look beyond its borders and increase its global competitiveness, said Dow. To help develop a coherent, government-wide strategy to boost travel exports, said Dow, U.S. Travel has called on the Biden administration to establish a new Assistant Secretary for Travel and Tourism within the Department of Commerce. In 2019, travel was America’s second-largest industry export, accounting for 10 percent of all U.S. exports of goods and services.
To become a true global leader, said Dow, America must also be viewed as a welcoming nation. This is why the mission of Brand USA, he said, is more important than ever. Given the collapse in international inbound travel—the program’s main source of public revenue—U.S. Travel is asking the federal government for the continued support and protection of Brand USA so it can keep promoting the U.S. to visitors around the world.
The country should also seize this opportunity, said Dow, to reimagine a stronger, more innovative air travel ecosystem. One important way to strengthen air travel, he said, is to accelerate the implementation of biometric technology. Biometric identification provides faster facilitation, greater accuracy and a more secure travel environment. These touchless systems, he said, also create a more convenient, hygienic user experience – an important factor in dealing with the current public health crisis.
U.S. Travel, said Dow, is calling on the federal government to expand biometric exit systems currently operating at 20 airports and seven seaports. Americans should have the option to participate voluntarily, giving citizens the choice to opt out of biometric screenings for any reason. He said there must also be continued improvement of the REAL ID Act. According to the Department of Homeland Security, only 38 percent of Americans are REAL ID-compliant. Enforcement is set to begin on Oct. 1, but the pandemic has made it harder to get to motor vehicle agency offices.
Finally, the U.S. must enhance its travel facilitation programs, Dow said, noting that a more streamlined approach to travel facilitation will be crucial to handling the coming resurgence in travel demand. He said TSA Precheck, Global Entry, Sentri and Nexus should be consolidated into one program. He also said Global Entry and preclearance locations should be expanded to Visa Waiver Program countries, and the U.S. should expedite visas for low-risk applicants and automate non-immigrant visa applications.
Recalling the industry’s “Comeback Decade” during the 2010s following the crises of 9/11 and the Great Recession, Dow said travel’s next chapter will be “fueled by the strength of the remarkable men and women who contribute so much to this industry.”
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