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Travel and tourism industry stakeholders were on Capitol Hill to discuss the effects of COVID-19 on the travel industry.
This was the first hearing for the newly formed U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Tourism, Trade, and Export Promotion and was led by Chairwoman Jacky Rosen (D-NV) and Ranking Member Rick Scott (R-FL).
“The State of Travel and Tourism During COVID” hearing included testimony from industry leaders, including Steve Hill, CEO and President, Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority; Jorge Perez, Regional Portfolio President, MGM Resorts International; Carol Dover, President and CEO, Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association; and Tori Emerson Barnes, Executive Vice President, Public Affairs and Policy, U.S. Travel Association.
“In my state of Nevada, travel and tourism-related industries are drivers of job creation and economic growth. The COVID-19 pandemic posed significant challenges for the travel, tourism, and hospitality industries in Nevada and across our nation,” said Rosen in opening statements. “Ranking Member Scott and I are proud to use this Subcommittee’s inaugural hearing as an opportunity to shine a light on the issues that are impacting these industries, as well as discuss solutions for supporting and revitalizing America’s travel and tourism industries moving forward.”
Scott also pledged his support.
“During my time as Governor of Florida, the Sunshine State welcomed hundreds of millions of visitors, shattering tourism records. Tourism supports our communities and small businesses, fuels job growth, and is critical to the economic success of our states and nation. I will never stop fighting to support our tourism industry in Florida and across the United States, and look forward to hearing from industry leaders on how we can support their success.”
During testimony, industry leaders shared their concerns over the ongoing impact of COVID-19 and the importance of a clear path forward.
In opening statements, Barnes listed four key priorities to restore travel demand, accelerate rehiring in the travel sector and shorten the timeline for recovery.
She called for the safe and quick reopening of international travel; the approval of clear guidance by the CDC to safely restart professional meetings and events; the enactment by Congress of the Hospitality and Commerce Job Recovery Act to spur incremental demand and accelerate rehiring; and the provision of temporary emergency funding by Congress for Brand USA to welcome visitors back to the U.S.
Barnes noted that travel and tourism need to be a priority and that, while things are looking up, a recovery is not inevitable.
“Low-to-middle income families have been hardest hit by the pandemic and research shows they are less likely to travel in the next year,” Barnes said. “Business meetings, conventions and events are still severely restricted in many states, and this sector—which also happens to be the largest revenue generator and job creator—is projected to take four years to recover. And, with our borders still closed to much of the world, international travel to the U.S. will take more than five years to return to pre-pandemic levels—and with the uncertainty around reopening, it could be even longer.”
She also noted that even bringing back a small amount of international travel could have a big impact.
“If international travel from the top inbound markets (such as the United Kingdom, Canada and the European Union), can reach an average of just 40 percent of 2019 levels by the end of 2021, we can restore an additional 225,000 jobs and $30 billion in travel exports this year alone,” Barnes testified. “Even small steps will go a long way. For example, if the U.S. can quickly establish a public health corridor between the U.S. and the U.K.—while avoiding quarantines upon arrival— it could add 1.9 million arrivals and $4.4 billion in spending in 2021 alone.”
MGM’s Perez pointed out that there is still a long way to go.
“International visitation is a big factor both from a business travel and leisure travel perspective,” said Perez. “International travel has not really started to recover at this point.”
Barnes also pointed out that opening international travel in July could be a game-changer.
“We can shorten the timeline of recovery if we are able to reopen international travel by July,” she added.
One of the big issues for the industry is a clear path forward.
Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) noted that the Protecting Tourism in the United States Act calls for the commerce department and affiliated agencies to develop a plan to help the tourism industry to recover.
Senator Dan Sullivan(R-AK) also pointed to the Visit America Act that would establish a new Cabinet-level position, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Travel and Tourism within the Commerce Department, who would give voice to a national strategy to bring tourism back. Specifically, the bill calls for the development of a 10-year travel and tourism strategy with the goal of achieving, by 2028, 116 million annual international visitors to the United States and $445 billion in travel exports.
In later testimony, Barnes reiterated the importance of a national strategy for reopening travel and noted that there is a hesitancy from the administration to put forth a plan.
“We have heard that data and science should lead the way, and we agree,” she said. “Other countries, our competition really, are already contemplating [reopening], and are putting out timelines. We need a timeline first and foremost…We need to find a path. We need clear benchmarks and clarity. We want to welcome travelers back to the U.S.”
The importance of developing new infrastructure was also raised during the hearing. Members of the committee brought up the opportunity to develop new systems in places such as airports specific to the pandemic.
“We think that there is a lot of good that can be done with biometric touchless solutions that you can opt into and additional layers within the airport,” said Barnes. “We very much support anything that can help continue health and safety.”
The committee also discussed the importance of passing an infrastructure bill for ports, bridges, roads, airports and more.
“All modes of transportation are critical in order to allow our industry to recover and thrive in the future,” said Hill. “A national travel infrastructure strategy is critical and funding it through an infrastructure package is equally important.”
Barnes echoed the calls for a national strategy.
“If we have a system to move freight, we should also have the funding mechanism to move people,” she said. “Large hub infrastructure for airports is also critically important as is investing in high-speed rail and hyperloop and also in electric vehicle technology infrastructure. As we think about the ‘Great American Road Trip,” we should think about the “Green American Road Trip” and how infrastructure, if you are going to drive from Florida to California or New York to Washington, how you can do that in a sustainable way.”
Senator John Hickenlooper (D-CO) asked about the rebuilding of confidence in the industry.
Las Vegas Tourism’s Hill highlighted that the confidence of both business and leisure travelers is critical.
“We are seeing that, as people get vaccinated their confidence returns. The vaccination process is just exceptionally important,” he said. “Getting past the health crisis is what will really restore confidence. Frankly, the messaging from our elected officials will too. There needs to be consistency there.
“It is important to have communicated the need to be careful, safe and healthy,” Hill added. “But messaging around the fact that it is safe to get out there and travel is important as well.”
Following the hearing, U.S. Travel president and CEO Roger Dow said it was clear reopening should be a priority.
“As was made clear in today’s hearing, a full U.S. economic recovery won’t happen without the reopening of travel,” said Dow in a statement. “The travel and tourism industry accounted for a staggering 65 percent of U.S. jobs lost last year, so restoring this sector needs to be a national priority.”