U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina RaimondoGina RaimondoRepublican lawmakers raise security, privacy concerns over Huawei cloud services Solar companies warn tariffs on imported panels would be devastating The Hill's 12:30 Report: Biden increases vaccine requirement for federal workers MORE said this week that she is pressing for the easing of coronavirus restrictions that bar much of the world from traveling to the United States. Dozens of U.S. business groups, lawmakers and officials from foreign governments are urging President BidenJoe BidenPelosi sets Thursday vote on bipartisan infrastructure bill Pressure grows to cut diplomatic red tape for Afghans left behind President Biden is making the world a more dangerous place MORE to relax tough restrictions. Airlines and others have pressed the administration to lift restrictions covering most non-U.S. citizens who have recently been in Britain, the 26 Schengen nations in Europe without border controls, Ireland, China, India, South Africa, Iran and Brazil. Separately, 75 members of the U.S. House of Representatives are also seeking to ease travel bans, in particular entry restrictions on travelers from Canada and Britain.
But in order to lure foreigners to America, a few things need to change.
First, vaccination rates must go up in America in order for the messaging by U.S. health officials to become more beckoning. Nearly 1,600 counties across 40 states with 72 million residents have vaccinated less than 40 percent of their populations, according to an analysis by CNBC. Among the 463 counties with infection levels of at least 100 new cases per 100,000 residents over the past week, more than 80 percent have vaccination rates below 40 percent.
With news reports of outbreaks in various states, America is still far from COVID-free. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has raised concerns about the Delta variant of COVID-19, making any traveler rightly nervous.
Countries from which tourists are coming have to improve their own COVID situations. America is part of a global travel network that has been devastated by the pandemic. According to recent figures from the United Nations World Tourism Organization, the decline in international travel in 2020 resulted in an estimated loss of $1.3 trillion in global export revenues. As the agency notes, this figure is more than 11 times the loss that occurred in 2009 as a result of the global economic crisis.
But beyond COVID, there is another negative signal to would-be tourists coming to American cities. Reports of spikes in violence are not exactly a welcome mat for travelers thinking of spending time here. Many tourists make decisions on travel based on physical safety.
According to a new report by The Council on Criminal Justice, a nonpartisan criminal justice think tank, and Arnold Ventures, a philanthropy dedicated to tackling some of the most pressing problems in the United States, homicides in 34 U.S. cities rose sharply in 2020, and rates of aggravated assaults and gun assaults increased as well. Homicide rates were 30 percent higher than in 2019, a historic increase representing 1,268 more deaths than the year before in the sample of 34 cities.
According to the report, crime is actually worse now than during the coronavirus pandemic, which may have temporarily suppressed some homicides by limiting the opportunities for offenders and victims to interact following government-ordered restrictions on travel, work and social activity. “Compared to other periods in 2020,” the report states, “the smallest homicide increases occurred in March through May, when the most severe COVID restrictions were in place.”
Sadly, a precipitous rise in homicides coincided with the emergence of mass protests after George Floyd was killed in late May by a police officer in Minneapolis. In June through August 2020, the homicide rate was 37 percent higher than the previous year and higher than during any other period in 2020.
The bottom line is that America needs to get its act together for the sake of its own citizens and for the sake of foreigners who come here. Our universities rely on one million foreign students coming here each year and they generated, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, $44 billion for the U.S. economy in 2019.
Our cities rely on the tourism industry, especially hotels and retailers, who want to welcome back consumers. Much of tourism is about global messaging, and we must be able to project to others that America is safe, prosperous and open for business. We all have a role to play in making sure we can say that.
Tara D. Sonenshine is a former U.S. under-secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs.