It's time to lead by the power of our example

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T0607NICKHENTSCHEL_C_350X200 [Credit: Nick Hentschel]

Nick Hentschel is COO of the inbound tour operator and wholesale travel service AmericanTours International. He served on the US Travel & Tourism Advisory Board under President Obama's secretary of commerce, Penny Pritzker. 

Many headlines following the recent Memorial Day weekend focused on the return of long TSA lines and jam-packed holiday traffic.

But there's a travel story that's not being told.

Yes, domestic leisure travel is rebounding after a disastrous 2020, although still not to pre-pandemic levels. But a critical portion of America's travel and tourism sector is unable to rebound, not due to low demand but because of outdated and arbitrary government restrictions. These restrictions are now unnecessarily hindering the recovery of an estimated 800,000 jobs, according to US Travel -- a very big number that should be very concerning to the Biden administration given the latest jobs reports.

International inbound travel from top overseas market remains entirely blocked.

Most of the same restrictions that were put in place by President Trump last March at the start of the pandemic are still in place for places like the U.K., despite the fact that a significant majority of that country is now vaccinated. And while vaccinated Brits are still banned from visiting America, unvaccinated Uruguayans have no problem visiting as long as they present a negative Covid test result -- including from rapid tests that have limited accuracy. Uruguay's Covid rate of infection is among the worst in the world and over 20 times that of the U.K. How does this make any sense? It doesn't, and decision-makers in the Biden administration, including at the CDC, know this.

The point isn't to pick on Uruguay. There are many other countries that aren't included in the executive order restricting travel to the U.S. Indeed, the new travel trend now taking hold for those who can afford it in many of these countries is to visit America to get vaccinated.

Having served on President Obama's Travel & Tourism Advisory Board, I know our policymakers can do better. And they must, because domestic travel demand will not replace international travel spend in the short or long term. Our industry must confront the current bureaucratic malaise head on and demand change.

According to US Travel, international inbound tourism accounted for $234 billion in spending in 2019, significantly reducing our trade deficits with key trading partners. In 2020 that number decreased by over $150 billion. If the federal government does not act soon, this loss will be even worse in 2021, and for no good reason.

Moreover, international travelers supported over 1.2 million jobs in 2019, 70% of which were lost last year. The longer that arbitrary travel restrictions remain in place, the harder these jobs will be to recover. And these job losses were not just at major theme parks or big casinos but at countless small businesses that specifically support international travelers, many of which are owned by immigrants who came here to realize the American dream. Outdated policies should no longer be harming their ability to recover.

So far, the EU has been much more proactive in leading with solutions based in science that enable borders to reopen safely again. America should not concede our leadership role but instead be proactive in creating and implementing these solutions. Our industry must steer President Biden in this direction as he heads to meet with our allies at the G7 later this week. There has been some reporting of a U.S.-U.K. corridor being announced around the G7. Let's hope this is true -- it would certainly be a good start, but it's also entirely insufficient.

The EU is now deploying a Covid verification framework for cross-border travel to resume, including for Americans who will soon be able to travel to Europe by July. These measures must be adopted on a reciprocal basis. Our industry should demand this, because much of the domestic boom that we are experiencing right now will fade once Americans have more options for travel outside the U.S.

One of President Biden's favorite mantras is that America must "lead not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example." America has set a strong example when it comes to our vaccine rollout, which enabled our country to largely reopen this Memorial Day. We must not abdicate our leadership example when it comes to the recovery of international travel as it will be a critical component for our overall economic resilience.

The time is now to reopen our borders for safe travel based on reduced risk. We know the solutions that work. We have the capacity and the technology to implement them. Now we just need to make it happen by setting the right example. As someone who many in our industry admire often said: Yes, we can.

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