Traveling too often can be a huge headache – so much so that people stay home.
We have airport delays, cumbersome security lines, unpredictability and—for those who are not US citizens—an often paralyzing wait to obtain visas to enter the country.
All of these problems are hurting our economy and need to be fixed now.
That was the announcement Wednesday afternoon from Jeff Freeman, president and CEO of the American Travel Association, and Chris Nassetta, CEO of Hilton Hotels & Resorts and incoming chairman of the travel trade group.
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It’s a familiar theme to travel leaders: The industry creates jobs and tax revenue, they say, but the government isn’t doing enough to make getting around as easy and hassle-free as possible.
There are no simple solutions.
Creating a long-term plan to fund the Federal Aviation Administration has been debated for more than a decade. Without it, air traffic control systems cannot be upgraded.
Streamlining airport security and reducing immigration lines involves two different branches of the Department of Homeland Security — the Transportation and Security Administration for the former and Customs and Border Protection for the latter. Both agencies are meant to protect the country, not necessarily move as many people as possible as quickly as possible.
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Industry leaders know these obstacles, but they have a clear message: “Recovering travel is restoring the nation.”
Leaders are excited about several opportunities this year, including implementing the bipartisan Infrastructure Act of 2022 to improve the passenger experience and airport infrastructure.
The recent nationwide shutdown of the FAA’s air traffic control systems helped highlight the urgency of the need for adequate, long-term government funding.
Delegating responsibility for our tourism infrastructure “is not acceptable,” Freeman added. “There are consequences for not making decisions.”
They are optimistic that with the addition of American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines to their trade and lobbying group, more progress can be made in all sectors.
“We haven’t necessarily seen this partnership in the past,” Freeman noted. “Where we engage as an industry, we see results.”
Hilton’s Nasetta said the industry has made progress since the pandemic, but still has a ways to go. (The event was held at his company’s Waldorf Astoria in Washington, D.C. — a former Trump hotel once owned by the former president.)
Nasetta then spewed statistics:
- The tourism industry accounted for 12 million jobs in 2021, down from 17 million in 2019.
- Travel spending accounted for about 1.5% of America’s gross domestic product last year, down from 3% of GDP in 2019.
He noted what all the CEOs have been saying for the past few years: Leisure travel is very, very strong.
“People have a burning desire to want to go out and live their lives given what they’ve been through with COVID,” Nasetta said.
Then, acknowledging the headwinds in a very blunt way, he added that business travel is mixed. Small and medium-sized companies have returned, but large corporations have been more restrained in their travel, he said. There are more regional gatherings arriving by car, but not as many large events arriving by plane.
At the same time, the government should make it easier for foreigners to visit.
Currently, 43% of travelers to the US must have a visa interview before coming here.
Freeman noted some extreme wait times at US consulates abroad:
- 616 days in India.
- 455 days in Brazil.
- 549 days in Mexico.
- 872 days in Colombia.
“It’s basically a de facto travel ban,” he said.
“We’re telling them that their money, their time is not needed here,” Freeman added. “A lot of these passengers, as you can imagine, just won’t do it. They will choose other markets. They will choose places that want their business.
“When we look at the success that the Obama administration has had in reducing wait times, it started with setting a goal of 21 days,” Freeman continued. “To that end, they found a way to figure it out. They took all the consulates down to less than 14 days for an interview. We believe the same can be done here, but it will take similar leadership to get there.”
Of course, a big part of that is China, which had 3 million annual visitors to the US before the pandemic. It was the third largest group in terms of sheer number of people, but – and this is key – with $15 billion in spending, it was the country with the highest financial impact.
Freeman asked, “What is our plan to get these passengers back?”