A key 'STEP' to bring back the travel industry

A key 'STEP' to bring back the travel industry
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Quiet city blocks, empty shops and restaurants, vacant hotels, shuttered attractions: This, unfortunately, is the reality of travel in America these past few months.

As one of the hardest-hit industries in the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, more than 8 million travel-supported U.S. jobs have been lost because of decreased travel. The U.S. is on track to lose more than half a billion dollars in travel spending this year, creating an economic impact that is 10 times worse than that of the 9/11 attacks.

Americans want to travel, and when they’re able to safely do so, many will. But in order to take advantage of that returning demand and to restore the tourism-related jobs that have been lost, the travel industry first must survive until the moment that recovery can truly begin — and no one yet knows when that is going to be. That’s why Congress must step in with significant, targeted assistance to make sure that the groundwork is laid for the eventual rebound.

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One critical component of travel’s eventual economic revival is destination marketing organizations (DMOs).

DMOs, which include convention and visitors bureaus such as Destination DC, are dependent on tourism revenue that dried up just weeks after the start of the pandemic. These economically vital organizations are tasked with promoting businesses, attractions and visitor experiences, as well as attracting events that spur economic development such as meetings, trade shows and conventions. We are small business champions, doing the important work of promoting local small businesses that do not have sizable marketing budgets and are unable to promote themselves far and wide. In fact, 83 percent of all travel industry businesses are small businesses.

When the time is right, DMOs will be crucial to bringing back the visitors who will spend money and create local tax revenue by frequenting businesses of all sizes — the hotels, restaurants, shops, theaters, tour companies and attractions that contribute so much to America’s tourism economy.

But an economic revival of the travel industry will not happen on its own. Once the worst of the pandemic has passed and Americans are ready to travel again in earnest, businesses will need funding to implement healthy practices, rehire workers who were laid off, and market themselves to travelers.

Fortunately, there is a bill in Congress now that would address these needs: the Sustaining Tourism Enterprises During the COVID-19 Pandemic (STEP) Act (S. 4299).

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This bipartisan bill, introduced at the end of July, would authorize $10 billion in grants through the Economic Development Administration (EDA) for tourism-related organizations impacted by the pandemic. Grants would be authorized for tourism marketing and promotion to assist with economic recovery, cleaning and sanitation costs associated with providing a safe travel environment, and costs of salaries and other operations expenses. 

An economic recovery is contingent on businesses and travelers alike adhering to the highest health and safety standards, which includes the wearing of masks. The measures outlined in the STEP Act are directly aimed at promoting a safe reopening and a healthy travel experience, which is crucial to restoring Americans’ confidence in the ability to travel.

Even better, the EDA is approved for tourism promotion grants — no structural changes would be required to make this program work for travel and tourism organizations. This has been a challenge with other programs such as the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), from which DMOs initially were excluded. Encouragingly, the Senate’s coronavirus relief bill expands PPP eligibility to include DMOs with 300 employees or fewer. PPP funding — particularly the loan forgiveness aspect — is critical to the survival of DMOs and the small businesses they support.

Congress has done a great deal to support the travel and tourism industry throughout this crisis, but more must be done to ensure that travel not only survives, but can help power a nationwide economic recovery. We urge Congress to consider the small businesses that have suffered so much during this crisis and to fold the STEP Act into its final package.

Elliott L. Ferguson II is president and CEO of Destination DC and national chair of the U.S. Travel Association.