In a surprisingly brief time, the public-private efforts to increase inbound tourism have exceeded all expectations — so much so, in fact, that keeping up with additional increases in arrivals might present the next set of challenges for the partnership between the U.S. government and travel industry leaders.
During a State Department-sponsored Strategic Dialogue on International Travel held in Washington on Monday, speakers including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Janet Napolitano reviewed significant leaps in inbound tourism as a result of inter-departmental government activity and private industry promotions that followed a presidential executive order in January to facilitate travel.
Many speakers, including an assortment of assistant secretaries, deputy secretaries, deputy assistant secretaries and other administrators from four cabinet-level departments, spoke of myriad initiatives in support of tourism. But when the conversation moved to next steps, the reality of limits — budgetary, physical and technological — entered the discussion.
“It’s a good problem to have,” Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Nides said in an interview with Travel Weekly. “I wish I could tell you that I’ll keep surging more and more consular officers [to process visas] and build more buildings, but more buildings and people cannot be the only answer.”
Similarly, John Wagner, executive director for admissibility and passenger programs for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a division of DHS, acknowledged that, despite the introduction of speed-lane programs such as Global Entry, overcrowding in airport immigration halls can be an issue.
He noted that air traffic to the U.S. has increased about 4% year over year and that wait times to get through immigration and customs “are creeping up. The majority get through in less than an hour, but it can get to up to two hours for some flights” at busier airports.
Similarly, there’s a growing backlog for scheduling interview appointments to apply for Global Entry, a process that assesses and collects biometric data to identify low-risk travelers, who are then permitted to check themselves back into the country on a kiosk or participate in the Transportation Security Administration’s “Pre-check” program for domestic travel. Seventy-five percent of Global Entry participants enter the U.S. in five minutes or less, but at some facilities it can take up to 60 days to schedule an appointment for an interview to join the program.
Wagner said that DHS is looking at programs that go “beyond Global Entry” and that the agency wants to “go paperless,” noting, “it costs us a fortune to process and store” paper customs and immigration forms filled out by entering travelers.
He further said his department is looking for efficiencies in merging passenger information collected by various sources and in reducing redundant requests for information.
Throughout the meeting, speakers from every department emphasized that security was still the No. 1 priority. Several speakers made the point that not only is security never sacrificed in the name of efficiency but that using a risk-based approach, vs. treating all travelers the same, “strengthens security,” in Napolitano’s words. “We can process information [for a trusted traveler] before [they] even arrive at an airport, so that our resources can be spent on security” for other travelers, she added.
Clinton also touched on the theme of getting more travelers to the U.S. without compromising security, but she focused her remarks on how inbound travel both supports the American economic recovery and strengthens relationships with people and governments around the world.
“We had to pull up the welcome mat after 9/11,” Clinton said. “It was too uncertain an environment. But there is no risk-free environment, not in life, not in travel, not in the government, not anywhere.” As many administration speakers did, Clinton told industry leaders in the audience, “We need your best ideas. We look to you as advisers and supporters to make this a win-win for everyone.”
Among the 250 or so people in the audience were a wide range of private-sector travel promoters, from U.S. Travel Association CEO Roger Dow to Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority CEO Rossi Ralenkotter, Amtrak CMO David Lim and travel agent Olga Ramudo, owner of Express Travel in Miami. But the only one who spoke on a panel was the CEO-designate of Brand USA, Christopher Thompson, who will leave his post as CEO of VisitFlorida to lead the public-private organization on Nov. 1.
Thompson told panel moderator Kathleen Matthews, chief communications and public affairs officer for Marriott International, that ongoing success in helping the economy recovery and growing the travel industry is dependent on “the magic of cooperative marketing. Our collective success will be in our aligned interests to facilitate travel.”
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