U.S. Travel Association's Roger Dow

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Last week, a number of trade organizations launched the Visit U.S. Coalition, aiming to reverse the decline in inbound visitors to the U.S., where global-travel share fell from 13.6% to 11.9% from 2015 to 2017, even as overall global travel increased 7.9%. Roger Dow, CEO of the U.S. Travel Association (a founding group), explained to news editor Johanna Jainchill why the Trump administration needs to make inbound travel a priority.

Q: What is going on?

Roger Dow
Roger Dow

A: Everyone wants to pin this on the president, and we have a communication issue around the world. But this thing has been going on since 2015, our slipping. It's the dollar, it's economies, it's a whole lot of things. The trend is extremely clear: You can look at 2015, when we didn't know who was running, and we were down 6% to 7%, and now we're down another 6% to 7%.

It's complex, but it can be turned around with the right priorities, and that's what we aim to do. We did the very same thing back in 2006 with the Discover America Coalition. The result was wait times for visas came down from 130 days to [in some cases] one day. We added 11 Visa Waiver Program countries. We created Brand USA. We got 2,000 more Customs and Border Protection officers. This coalition will aim to do the same thing.

The timing is correct; we would've just been wasting our time four or five months ago. They got the tax bill behind them, the economy is moving in the right direction, and now we believe we have a very good opportunity to say, "If you want to accelerate the economy, here is one very good way to do it, and that's called inbound travel."

Q: The data shows it didn't start under Trump, but remarks like the latest about certain countries can't help.

A: It is not helpful. And saying the right thing would be extremely helpful. Everyone has a piece in this as far as economy, air capacity, rhetoric. The bottom line is, look at [inbound travel from] Canada. The president doesn't enjoy great popularity there, but their numbers turned around significantly in the past year, and that's all economy related. The opportunity is there, and it has not been a priority, and we as an industry have to bring that home to the president. We had the same challenge with Obama at first. He made those statements about Las Vegas and the Super Bowl. We met with him and multiple CEOs from the industry, and he made it a priority to have a national travel and tourism strategy and set a goal for 100 million visitors, and the whole administration was lockstep on it being a priority. We need to do the same thing here.

Q: What policies and priorities can help?

A: The biggest thing we can do is communicate. I applaud the secretary of commerce for saying that "America is open for business," but I told him that we haven't heard those words from anyone else in the administration. If I were president, I'd say we'd want the world to know we're going to be tough as the dickens on terrorism and people that want to cause us harm. But on the flip side, we want you to come to the U.S. and see our great country and spend your money here. It's a matter of making sure it's a priority for the administration. Only the president can do that. He can say, "Let's be smart on security, but let's figure out what roadblocks we have and how to increase inbound travel -- the right inbound travelers -- and not lose share to our competitors."  

Q: It sounds like we still need to work on educating people as to the importance of travel to the economy.

A: [There's] tremendous work to be done. The president himself is a businessman and understands the travel industry, but my guess is this hasn't even been on his team's radar. That's what the coalition needs to do: put it on the radar. We are such a labor-intensive industry. You want to employ the underemployed? This industry, in spades, can do it. Amazon hasn't even decided where its [second headquarters is] going, and if we get even halfway back to 2015, that would be 50,000 jobs, equivalent to the Amazon headquarters in one fell swoop.

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