Travel leaders: US Government must do more to ease woes

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Traveling can all too often be a giant headache — so much so that people are staying home.

We’ve got airport delays, cumbersome security lines, unpredictability and — for those who aren’t U.S. citizens — often paralyzing waits to get visas to enter the country.

All of these problems are hurting our economy and need to be fixed now.

That was the message Wednesday afternoon from Geoff Freeman, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, and Chris Nassetta, CEO of Hilton Hotels & Resorts and the incoming chairman of the travel trade group.

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This is a familiar theme with travel leaders: The industry creates jobs and tax revenue, they say, but the government isn’t doing enough to make moving around as easy and seamless as possible.

There aren’t simple solutions.

Creating a long-term funding plan for the Federal Aviation Administration has been discussed for more than a decade. Without it, air traffic control systems can’t be modernized.

Streamlining airport security and reducing lines at immigration involve two different branches of the Department of Homeland Security — the Transportation and Security Administration for the first and Customs and Border Protection for the second. And both agencies have a goal to protect the country, not necessarily move as many people as quickly as possible.

The industry leaders know these hurdles but have a clear message: “Travel’s recovery is the nation’s recovery.”

The leaders are excited about a few opportunities this year including the implementation of the 2022 Bipartisan Infrastructure Act to improve the passenger experience and airport infrastructure.

The recent nationwide shutdown of the FAA’s air traffic control systems has helped highlight just how urgent the need is for proper, long-term government funding.

Passing the buck on our travel infrastructure “is not acceptable,” Freeman added. “There are consequences to not making decisions.”

They are optimistic that with the addition of American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines to their trade and lobbying group, more progress across all sectors can be made.

“We haven’t necessarily seen that partnership in the past,” Freeman noted. “Where we engage as an industry, we see results.”

Hilton’s Nassetta said the industry has made progress since the pandemic but still has a ways to go. (The event was held at his company’s Waldorf Astoria Washington D.C. — formerly the Trump Hotel, once owned by the former president.)

Nassetta then spewed off statistics:

  • The travel industry represented 12 million jobs in 2021, down from 17 million in 2019.
  • Travel spending accounted for about 1.5% of America’s gross domestic product last year, down from 3% of GDP in 2019.

He noted what all CEOs have been saying for the past few years: Leisure travel has been very, very strong.

“People have a burning desire to want to get out and live their lives given the experience of COVID,” Nassetta said.

Then, acknowledging the headwinds in a very candid manner, he added that business travel has been mixed. Small and medium companies have returned, but large corporations have been more restrained in their travel, he said. There are more regional, drive-to gatherings but not as many big, fly-to events.

At the same time, the government needs to make it easier for foreigners to visit.

Currently, 43% of travelers to the U.S. are required to get an interview for a visa before coming here.

Freeman noted a few extreme wait times at U.S. consulates overseas:

  • 616 days in India.
  • 455 days in Brazil.
  • 549 days in Mexico.
  • 872 days in Columbia.

“It’s essentially a de facto travel ban,” he said.

“We’re telling them that their money, their time isn’t needed here,” Freeman added. “Many of these travelers, as you can imagine, are simply not going to do it. They’re going to choose other markets. They’re going to choose places that want their business.”

“When we look at the success the Obama administration had in reducing wait times, it began with setting a goal of 21 days,” Freeman continued. “With that goal in hand, they found a way to figure it out. They got all consulates down to less than 14 days for an interview. We believe the same can be done here, but it’s gonna take similar leadership to get there.”

Of course, a big part of that is China, which had 3 million annual visitors to the U.S. before the pandemic. That was the third largest group in terms of the sheer number of people but — and this is key — with $15 billion in spending, was the top country for financial impact.

Freeman asked: “What is our plan to bring those travelers back in?”

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