US travel industry steps up efforts to end inbound testing requirement

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The U.S. Department of Commerce released its strategy this week to boost international travel to the United States, but several travel industry executives have noted that it does not address today’s biggest obstacle to inbound international travel: the Covid-19 testing requirement prior to arrival.

The National Travel and Tourism Strategy, led by Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, has set a five-year goal to attract 90 million annual visitors to the United States by 2027, which will translate into annual revenues of $279 billion for the industry. This would represent an increase of over 10 million annual visitors over pre-Covid-19 levels in 2019.

To achieve these levels, the strategy sets out several long-term goals, including a marketing campaign that also targets rural and historically underrepresented communities and the strengthening of processes and technologies that facilitate border entry, such as technology. biometric identification and mobile identification. The strategy also calls for improving sustainability practices within the travel industry, building “a more resilient, sustainable and equitable travel and tourism sector”.

US Travel Association President and CEO Roger Dow, when releasing the strategy, said in a statement that he applauded the “ambitious goal” of 90 million visitors by 2027, but he said the first step should be the repeal of the testing requirement. “More than 40 countries have safely removed their pre-departure testing requirement, and a recent survey found that 54% of international travelers were less likely to visit the United States with the requirement still in place,” according to Dow. .

For several months, travel industry groups have been pushing to end the testing requirement, but this push is reaching a crescendo as other countries, particularly the UK and several European countries, have already do the same. At a Wall Street conference last week, American Airlines CEO Robert Isom said he had recently urged political leaders to drop the “insane” requirement, noting it was slowing the recovery and that three-quarters of the countries the carrier serves no longer have testing requirements. , as reported by Reuters.

The Global Business Travel Association is hosting its annual U.S. legislative summit in Washington this week and is pushing lawmakers to “immediately end” the testing requirement, executive director Suzanne Neufang said in a blog post on Tuesday. The requirement affects outbound and inbound international travel, she said.

“U.S. travel restrictions impact willingness to travel due to the risk of not being able to return to the U.S. at the end of a business trip or vacation,” according to Neufang. “It also affects where and when international meetings and conferences take place – and whether the United States is in the consideration set.”

Neufang delivered the message Tuesday during testimony before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Tourism, Trade and Export Promotion, noting that “in a January GBTA survey, 43% of respondents said the biggest impediment to resuming business travel was government policies that restrict travel or make it difficult.”

On Tuesday, a coalition of 38 US city mayors – including Eric Adams of New York, Sylvester Turner of Houston, London Breed of San Francisco and Michael Hancock of Denver – sent a letter to the White House Covid-19 response coordinator , Ashish Jha, to request removal of the requirement. . “American cities are still struggling to reunite with international visitors after more than two years of pandemic-related restrictions,” the mayors said in their letter. “Our constituents and our businesses have suffered greatly from this sharp decline in international travel spending, and they will not be able to fully recover until this vital sector of the American economy rebounds.”

Hotel CEOs speaking at the NYU International Hospitality Investment Conference in New York this week also weighed in on the issue, with some dismissing the blanket plan as ‘absurd’ and meaningless in the face of continued entry restrictions. for travellers.

“You have to take the friction out of travel. And for international travel to the United States, Covid testing is at the top of the list,” said IHG Hotels & Resorts CEO Bill Barr, adding that he had to guide his own parents through the navigation process. both in airline requirements and government requirements after they recently visited him in the UK. “It’s just harder,” he said.

Marriott CEO Tony Capuano said that despite improving demand for hotel rooms around the world, continued international restrictions had significantly hampered Marriott’s recovery.

“I’m sure my colleagues’ numbers are similar,” he said, “but pre-Covid almost 20% of our overnight stays worldwide were cross-border travel. It’s coming back, but we’re only at 14% now, so there’s still a significant upside. The irony is that even the countries that have locked down the most aggressively – Australia, New Zealand, the Cayman Islands – are all wide open now, and you still have testing requirements coming to the United States”

Hilton CEO Christopher Nassetta was the most generous regarding the Commerce Secretary’s travel and tourism strategy announcement, noting that he sits on a committee that reviews such policy issues.

“I think Secretary Raimondo deserves a lot of credit. She is very attentive to travel issues, and even if [the National Travel and Tourism Strategy] are just goals and don’t have a lot of teeth, I think she’s very serious about building a program around that,” Nassetta said. “Having a very serious strategy and having legislation and policy that really responds to it is critically important.” When asked if the secretary and the political group were agitating to lift Covid tests for international travelers to the United States, Nassetta replied: “We are trying”.

In addition to ending the testing requirement, Dow also urged the federal government to address growing wait times for visas to enter the United States “Average wait times for appointments visa requirements have also increased to over a year in some of our main source markets, preventing millions of people from visiting,” he said.

Elizabeth West contributed to this report

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