Inbound travel to the United States may not be a top priority issue for many travel agents, but passenger security and convenience certainly is - especially when there is credible evidence that the hassles of flying are discouraging travel and travelers
Enter the U.S. Travel Association, who is battling for new thinking on increasing travel to the U.S. from major international markets. The association also urges a new look at the handling of domestic passengers and eliminating travel barriers without a loss of security. For this the association deserves high praise.
Led by Roger Dow, president and CEO of U.S. Travel, the association took the initiative last week to offer a fresh, timely perspective with a set of principles designed to maintain and improve the current high-level security standards. At the same time Dow urged greater convenience and higher quality service for America's travelers.
U.S. Travel’s goals – as with its ground breaking support of the Travel Promotion Act now passed by Congress and signed into law– is to offer forward-looking policies that will strengthen security and help eliminate barriers that are discouraging travel to and within the United States. In brief they are building new marketing opportunities.
“With a focus on reducing traveler wait times, improving customer service, and replacing a one-size-fits-all approach with a risk-based approach, the principles strike a balance between security and travel facilitation,” Dow said.
“The decade following 9/11 has seen significant changes in the way Americans, and those who visit America, travel,” said Dow. “We must continue keeping travelers safe with the highest level of security, but we must incorporate principles that improve facilitation and encourage travel.”
Among his laudable goals are helping make the U.S. more competitive in the global marketplace, a goal that effects agents, airlines, cruise lines, hoteliers, car rental firms, tour operators and a host of other industry segments.
Dow’s arguments are important and worth reiterating, especially in view of the forthcoming 10th anniversary of 9/11/ 2001. Since 9/11 travel has represented a lost opportunity for the U.S. economy and American jobs: what Dow calls a “Lost Decade” of opportunity.
“While global long-haul travel grew 40 percent from 2000 to 2010, overseas travel to the United States during this same timeframe rose just two percent. Despite more travelers worldwide, our (the U.S.) slice of the pie shrunk, with U.S. market share of the global travel market dropping from 17 percent in 2000 to 12.4 percent in 2010.”
If America had simply kept pace with the growth in global long-haul international travel in the decade after 9/11, U.S. Travel argues that 78 million more travelers would have visited the United States, adding a total of $606 billion to the U.S. economy and supporting more than 467,000 additional U.S. jobs annually.
In his analysis Dow notes that the past decade has been difficult for business travel, with total volume declining 21 percent between 2000 and 2010.
“This was due to the immediate impact of 9/11 and by the meetings crisis in the late 2000s. Business travel returned to growth mode in 2010, increasing nearly 4 percent, and growth is expected through 2014, although at a much slower rate ranging from 1.2 percent to 1.7 percent annually,” said Dow.
By contrast, leisure travel has been quite resilient in the decade since 9/11, with leisure travel volume increasing 17 percent since 2000, despite a few years of negative growth, U.S. Travel says. And growth underscores the importance of travel to Americans. Slow but steady growth of about 2 percent annually is expected through 2014, the association estimates.
One conclusion, drawn by Dow, is that with a troubled domestic economy attracting more international visitors to the United States, improving the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) security experience will play an important role in creating job opportunities for Americans.
What is being done? The association recently formed a coalition to advance reforms advocated in its recent report on the U.S. visa system. The Discover America Partnership, a diverse group of business and travel organizations, recently sent letters to the White House and to Congress, advocating visa reform. Reforming the U.S. visa system could add 1.3 million U.S. jobs by 2020 and produce $859 billion in cumulative additional economic output.
David Huether, senior vice president of economics and research at U.S. Travel, offers additional proof. “Increasing the amount of international travelers to the U.S. through an improved U.S. visa system will create jobs. Travelers from China, India and Brazil collectively spent close to $15 billion in the U.S. in 2010, which supported 105,800 U.S. jobs. Barriers, like visa delays, that discourage travel to the U.S. must be removed so we can enjoy the economic impact of these travelers.”
Another aspect of U.S. Travel’s advocacy is support of the TSA's "trusted traveler" program.
A sensible risk-based trusted traveler program where travelers could voluntarily provide background information to qualify for expedited screening, similar to trusted traveler programs operated by CBP, has long been a U.S. Travel objective.
"Recent studies show that travelers are widely supportive of this concept," said Dow. "As the program evolves, it is critical that eligibility expands beyond frequent flier programs and that the entirety of the security process – lines and screening – is improved for all travelers."
“Travelers deserve a trusted traveler program that provides predictable wait times at airports and a screening process that recognizes their low-risk nature,” said Dow. “We now know that frequent travelers are willing to pay for a better security experience.”
The association also notes a recent study that showed respondents would take two to three more trips per year if the hassle involved in flying could be reduced without compromising security. Those additional trips would add $84.6 billion in travel spending and support 888,000 additional jobs, according to research from U.S. Travel.
There is a lot more to U.S. Travel and its programs, including addressing many complex and controversial issues and dealing with Congress and a host of government agencies. The association is clearly succeeding in fighting a good fight, not only for the travel industry but also for trying to open up economic opportunity.
The issues U.S. Travel addresses may not always be immediate profit and loss concerns to travel agents. But the association is fighting vital battles worth winning and deserves high praise for its initiatives and perseverance. It also deserves sustained support from the travel industry as it tries to open lucrative new markets for the future.