Brand USA, the nation's tourism marketing organization, has been eagerly awaiting this moment for more than a year and a half. On Sept. 20, the U.S. announced that, starting in November, it will admit international visitors who are fully vaccinated, provide contact tracing information and test negative for Covid-19 shortly before their departure. The news means the organization can now return to the work it was created to do: promoting international travel to the country. Travel Weekly hotels editor Tovin Lapan spoke with Brand USA CEO Chris Thompson about the response to the White House announcement at last week's IPW event in Las Vegas and what comes next.
Q: You were at IPW in Las Vegas when the announcement came out. What was the reaction?
A: Monday morning I was getting ready to head to the conference and my phone started blowing up. ... I think the overall feeling was just a tremendous amount of optimism and enthusiasm.
At Brand USA, we've been very respectful that we're facing a world pandemic that none of us have ever had to deal with. We have to follow the science, follow all the health and safety protocols. What shut off the world of international travel is outside of our control. So many things had to happen, and we have kept saying all along that, when the time is right, we will return to marketing the USA as we had in the past. So I think that announcement took us from "when the time is right" to saying the time is now.
Q: Do you think the decision to reopen to international travelers in the U.S. will prompt other countries to follow suit?
A: I had international delegations coming up to me and saying: "Do you realize everybody was waiting for the U.S.?" To put the stake in the ground and share with the world how they were going to learn to live with it is a big step. So I think that was not only a major statement for our sector, our industry, it was a major statement for everybody that's been dealing with this pandemic around the world for almost two years. It just changed the whole tone of [IPW].
Q: So what are the next big steps as the industry prepares for November?
A: Now we can prepare with a date, certain the borders will open, and with it being a month or so away it gives everybody a chance to look at the criteria that will allow us to return back to what we would normally be doing.
The biggest one of those was we have to get borders back open. But once that's done, we have to get air connectivity back. Our airline partners certainly took a huge hit, as did most of us in the industry. So we need to get routes back established, planes back in the air and get connectivity back to where it was. The cruise industry as a vertical sector was probably as hard hit if not harder than most, and it's still really at all-time lows. So, this is not an all-off and then all of a sudden it's all back on.
Q: Which markets do you expect to be focused on in the first few months of the restart?
A: Canada and Mexico -- we get our largest volume from those two markets, and then the U.K. as a single market. Europe as a collective market, as well. China is a big market. Not necessarily in numbers but in spend. Pre-pandemic we might get 3 million Chinese visitors, but they would spend more than 20 million Canadian visitors will. So that's a very productive market in terms of spend. Aside from those primary markets, Brazil, Germany, Australia and India are markets we'd normally be concentrating on, but our activities will depend on when they reopen and to what degree.