U.S. Travel Association's Jonathan Grella

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Jonathan Grella
Jonathan Grella

As Congress moved to implement stricter security requirements under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) in the wake of the Paris attacks and San Bernardino shootings, and after Republican frontrunner Donald Trump last week called for a ban on Muslims entering the U.S., Travel Weekly's Michelle Baran spoke with Jonathan Grella, executive vice president of public affairs for the U.S. Travel Association, about finding a balance between adequate security and a thriving tourism economy.

Q: What are U.S. Travel's biggest concerns about recent VWP legislative action?

A: On a bipartisan basis, in both chambers, there seems to be a will to strengthen the program and not dismantle it or undermine it. And there are certainly potholes out there on Capitol Hill that need to be avoided. There is a provision in particular in the [Senate] bill that would be very troubling and damaging. That bill has a biometrics provision that would require the creation of what would be a redundant fingerprint system.

There are also diplomatic considerations. Our 38 alliances, that are supposed to be some of our closest friendships around the world, might be taken aback or offended by our less-friendly and -cordial approach. The message that our government sends to the rest of the world will have consequences on not just individual travelers but on governments and how they then deal with us.

Q: What should the travel industry make of Donald Trump's statement about not allowing Muslims into the country?

A: We need to choose freedom over fear, and that extends not just from our policy-making but also to the selection of our leaders. And certainly our industry's view is that we can't shut ourselves off and that shutting our doors to major portions of the world's population is not exactly a recipe for prosperity.

Q: How do we balance portraying an image of being welcoming but also that of being a safe and secure destination?

A: Visa Waiver is one instance where security and economy can work together. This program delivers on both fronts. Anxiety will drive the urge for some members [of Congress] to adopt policies that are tantamount to hiding under the covers or trying to bar the door. But we live in an interconnected world and so we don't have the luxury of eliminating risk from the equation. It's best that we make peace with that reality and protect ourselves.

Q: What kind of feedback do you get from outbound travel organizations and companies abroad about whether their citizens are shying away from the U.S.?

A: There are a lot of other countries that invest serious dollars in marketing themselves and in competing for market share. And we can't just say, "Well, we're the USA, of course we're the best." We've got to actually work for people's business and work for people's leisure travel, as well. People around the world have decisions to make, and they could choose to come here or go somewhere else. And everything we do, from how we welcome them, whether we make them wait in line, whether we treat them with respect, whether we have first-class airports or, as some politicians would say, third-world airports, all those things matter.

That's part of the reason why we do all this. We certainly do it to grow the industry and to grow the economy, but there's a major diplomatic and perceptions aspect to much of the work that we do.

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