Coordinated federal leadership is needed for recovery of US travel and tourism
No major U.S. industry has been more severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic than travel and tourism, and states and localities that rely on tourism dollars are suffering greatly. The Visit America Act would direct the coordinated federal response that will be indispensable for recovery.
Before COVID-19, U.S. travel and tourism generated about $2.6 trillion in economic output and supported some 16 million jobs, or one in ten of all U.S. jobs. In 2018, the United States was the third-most popular tourist destination in the world, with over 80 million international arrivals. It ranked first in international tourism receipts; more than the next three countries combined. With its component industries of hotel and lodging, food and beverage services, recreation and entertainment, transportation, and travel services, tourism was a major U.S. export and trade surplus contributor to the country, and all that is before accounting for the huge add of domestic travel and tourism.
COVID-19 changed all that precipitously, devastating many state and local economies. The U.S. Travel Association estimates that the pandemic has caused over $386 billion in cumulative losses for the industry since March, with some $50 billion in lost federal, state and local revenues. Every state and locality that has some travel and tourism, has taken some hit, and has an interest in recovery. But it is especially acute for tourism-dependent regions and states, many of which have reported 90-plus percent declines in visitation numbers compared to a year ago.
Small businesses and workers in the travel and tourism industry have borne the brunt. Over 80 percent of the travel and tourism industry are small businesses, the majority of which expect a recovery of well over six months if they make it through this pandemic at all. Over a quarter of all leisure and hospitality sector workers remain unemployed, double the next most hard-hit industry.
By the end of this year, total losses to travel and tourism could be as much as nine times worse than after the Sept. 11 attacks, with a recovery that even with across-the-board focus may take years to return to pre-pandemic levels.
Amidst this crisis, there are some promising signs for our travel and tourism industry. While international travel will take longer to recover, domestic travel has been gradually recovering since March, with many Americans opting to pursue road trips. Data from surveys show that most Americans want to travel and look forward to future vacations. Travelers that successfully and safely complete a trip also reported increased confidence in future travel.
To turn this widespread desire for travel into action, we need to restore public trust and confidence in the safety of travel, both for tourists and for the communities they will be visiting. As the travel and tourism industry moves to adapt to evolving traveler preferences and new demands for health and hygiene during and after this pandemic, we need high-level, mid- and long-term federal coordination and support.
The industry needs continued short-term emergency assistance so that states and communities can continue to benefit from this industry in the future. Through the Paycheck Protection Program and the Main Street Lending Facility, the federal government has provided a lifeline to struggling businesses across the country, including in the travel and tourism industry, but much more is needed.
In May, Sens. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Angus King (I-Maine) answered this challenge by introducing S. 3831, the Visit America Act. Developed alongside and with the support of travel and tourism industry leaders, the Visit America Act establishes high-level federal leadership to coordinate and promote travel and tourism for the first time. In October, Reps. Ed Case (D-Hawaii), Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.), Dina Titus (D-Nev.) and Don Young (R- Alaska) introduced the Visit America Act in the House as H.R. 8480, making this bill a bipartisan, bicameral effort.
The Visit America Act goes beyond general COVID-19 relief and recovery by establishing travel and tourism as a clear economic priority for the United States. For too long, the United States has been the only member of the G-20 without a high-ranking official focused on travel and tourism. This bill would fix that by establishing a new Assistant Secretary for Travel and Tourism in the Department of Commerce, charged with coordinating a high-level federal strategy to advance this vital industry alongside other relevant agencies and partners. This assistant secretary would also be responsible for setting an annual goal for international visitation, providing support for improved visitor visa processing, and promoting travel exports abroad.
The assistant secretary would also be charged with developing and implementing a 10-year COVID-19 pandemic recovery strategy for the travel and tourism industry with the advice of a newly created U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Board composed of industry leaders, experts and relevant officials.
Lastly, the Visit America Act pursues long-term success in travel and tourism by setting a visitation goal of 116 million annual travelers to the United States by 2028, an increase of about 25 percent over pre-pandemic numbers.
The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on travel and tourism will endure long after the industry has recovered from the economic damage. Our federal government must do all it can to ensure that U.S. travel and tourism continues to lead a competitive global market in the post-pandemic world. Enacting the Visit America Act would be a solid first step in doing just that.
Sullivan is the junior senator from Alaska and is a member of the Commerce Committee. Case represents Hawaii’s 1st District.
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