Regaining America's lost share of international travel

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Jonathan Tisch
Jonathan Tisch

A year ago, travel industry leaders warned about the economic impact from a potential slowdown in international visitors. Unfortunately, that slowdown has arrived. 

While global travel is growing, the U.S. share of the market fell nearly 13% over the past few years. That means we missed out on 7.4 million international visitors, $32 billion in additional spending and 100,000 more jobs. While America is losing visitors, Germany, Australia, the U.K. and Canada are seeing their market share increase.

When it comes to conveying America's image to the world, public policy and public rhetoric matter, and to many international travelers right now, America's message is not very welcoming. One effective response is Brand USA, a public-private partnership created by Congress to promote America as the best destination for international visitors.

Last year, as a result of the marketing and advertising programs of Brand USA, more than one million international visitors came to America and generated $8.5 billion for our economy. The program returns an estimated $28 in visitor spending for every $1 invested -- without a single dollar from U.S. taxpayers.

Yet the Trump Administration proposed eliminating Brand USA. Then the program took a serious hit during the budget deal approved by Congress in February. Although the fees that fund it were extended, after 2020, those monies will be diverted to the U.S. Treasury instead of Brand USA. Unless this is fixed, the program will be in limbo.

Another development is President Trump's call for "extreme vetting" of prospective visitors to the U.S.

Under the new rules, extreme vetting would apply to more than 14 million visa applicants. Right now, it applies to about 65,000 people per year. Every traveler from critical markets like Brazil, India and China would be subjected to extreme vetting.

As the Administration considers reactions to its proposal, it's worth remembering some lessons from existing secure traveler programs. TSA Precheck offers millions of travelers expedited security at airports after undergoing rigorous background checks. It enables officials to stop dedicating resources to travelers who pose no threat.

Another smart vetting program (with the worst name) is the Visa Waiver Program. I prefer to call it the Secure Travel Partnership because it requires other countries to share their best intelligence on suspected terrorists. Participating countries need to upgrade their security standards to match ours; require travelers to use e-passports, which are harder to forge; and allow U.S. officials to review security protocols to make sure they meet the strictest standards. These programs allow U.S. security officials to focus intensely on people that pose a threat, while spending less time on people that do not.

Travel and hospitality sites and settings -- airplanes, hotels, restaurants, nightclubs -- have all been terrorist targets around the world. People won't travel if they don't feel safe. The travel industry is committed to making travel secure. Rigorous security standards can and should be implemented without sacrificing America's leadership in the international travel market.

With the right policies and a welcoming message to the world, we can have both.

Jonathan Tisch is chairman and CEO of Loews Hotels and chairman emeritus of the U.S. Travel Association.

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