By Brendan Manley
REPORT FROM THE U.S.—For much of the world, a trip to the United States is a dream vacation, offering countless opportunities for tourism and retail spending; for others, periodic trips here are absolutely essential for business. These potential foreign guests—especially those from booming nations such as China, India and Brazil—represent a major source of jobs and revenue, if only they can be effectively courted and accommodated.
At the moment, that’s a pretty big “if.”
For the past decade, the U.S. has been losing market share to other nations increasingly clamoring for pieces of the international visitation pie. The decline is due in part to a bloated visa process arising from the stringent Homeland Security policies adopted here after 9/11, as well as the lack of a cohesive, unified marketing push. According to the U.S. Travel Association, all of that needs to change, and fast.
“Unfortunately we’ve had significant barriers to travel, because of delays and customer service concerns about the visa process, leading to the inability of travelers to get a visa in a timely basis,” said Patricia Rojas, VP of government affairs for the U.S. Travel Association. “Between 2000 and 2010, there was extensive growth in the (overseas) travel market, but the U.S. was stagnant, and our share of the market actually dropped.”
There’s little doubt that the U.S. economy can benefit from capturing a greater percentage of overseas visitation dollars, given the outsource-proof nature of the travel industry and the jobs it creates, but each year the U.S. loses ground. The USTA says the total number of long-haul global travelers grew to 213 million from 152 million during the first decade of this century, but within that span the U.S. saw its market share fall to 12.4% (26.4 million) in 2010 from 17% (26 million) in 2000.
“The international market is very important to the U.S., especially the gateway cities, as international visitors tend to stay longer and spend more than domestic visitors,” said Bruce Baltin, senior VP at PKF Consulting in Los Angeles. “Tourism helps the balance of trade. Visa reform to help increase tourism from rapidly growing economies like Brazil, China and India can help measurably to increase tourism revenues, as percentage growth from these countries is already strong, but from a low base.”
Hurry up and wait
It all comes down to convenience, or lack thereof. Brazil, China and India are the fastest-growing, highest-spending sources of overseas travel to the U.S., but the wait to even apply for a yearly visa can be 100 days or more. The lack of consular offices in these nations means many visitors must pay a significant amount of money to travel—often by a separate flight—to a U.S. consulate for an in-person interview.
“The concern isn’t the questions that are asked or the background checks that are run—we need to set up a system in the countries with high demand that is able to process the people in a timely way,” said Rojas. “You can do that in a two-week timeframe; you don’t need to have someone waiting for you to catch up 100 days later after you’ve asked for the interview. That doesn’t make our country more secure, it just makes us look like we can’t process people effectively. As a business leader globally, we should be able to do better.”
Americas Ad Will Appear Here
“You take a country like Israel, which is number one in security, yet people from China can come there and get a visa on arrival,” said Joseph McInerney, president and CEO of the American Hotel & Lodging Association. “Are we keeping the crooks and the bad guys out? No, because they know how to get here; we’re keeping out the people who want to come and spend their money.”
Although the U.S. remains the No. 1 dream destination for many Chinese travelers, a larger percentage of Chinese tourists visit France instead, because the visa process there is so much easier. According to the USTA/Oxford Economics, France captured 18% more Chinese visitors than the U.S. in 2010, with 948,950 Chinese guests, compared with 801,738 in the U.S. Long-haul outbound demand from China is expected to grow 151% worldwide through 2020.
The USTA’s main efforts toward reform hinge on supporting new legislation in the House and Senate. Congressman Joe Heck (R-NV) introduced H.R. 3039, the “Welcoming Business Travelers and Tourists to America Act of 2011”; the “International Tourism Facilitation Act,” was introduced by Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Roy Blunt (R-MO); and visa-reform language was also included in the Senate’s FY 2012 State Department Foreign Operations Bill.
Rojas also said more countries—particularly Taiwan, Brazil, Poland and Chile—should be added to the 36 currently in the visa waiver program. The USTA is also seeking to improve the welcome experience at customs for international guests arriving at U.S. airports.
“We’ve had visitors get off an eight-hour flight, then wait 60 to 90 minutes to be processed, and that’s not the first impression we want to give them of the United States,” Rojas said. “Friendly and efficient processing of visitors needs to happen at our international airports.”
Other efforts will materialize in 2012 in the wake of the 2010 Travel Promotion Act, which created the first national travel promotion program, led by the new Corporation for Travel Promotion. The embryonic entity—funded by a new US$14 Electronic System Travel Authorization fee paid every two years by travelers from visa-waiver nations (US$10 of which goes to the CTP)—will unveil its inaugural plans, dubbed Brand USA, on Monday at the World Travel Market in London, with a March 2012 launch date eyed for these new promotions.
“In London the CTP will unveil America’s first-ever global consumer brand and invite the world with open arms to come visit us,” said Joel Secundy, the CTP’s VP of strategic outreach. “By next spring, we expect to be in market with advertising, earned media, promotional packages and a variety of other marketing tools to attract increased international visitation, to create jobs, grow exports and drive economic growth.”
Growth already is present at major gateway cities—Los Angeles, New York and Miami saw international arrivals increase 16%, 10% and 11%, respectively, year-to-date July 2011 compared to the same period in 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Meanwhile, the NYC Convention & Visitors Bureau has seen a 4% rise for the city in market share from 2006 to 2010, accounting for an additional 2.5 million guests. Data from LA, Inc. (the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau) indicates 2010 international visitors accounted for approximately 20% of total visitors to the city and 35% of total visitor spending. The USTA hopes its efforts can lead to a return to an overall U.S. market share of 17% of all foreign visitation by 2015. All that’s needed is a final push to remove the remaining obstacles facing those seeking an American travel experience.
“While we’re seeing year over year growth, which is a very positive development, we need to compare ourselves to our competitors,” Rojas said. “We actually should be striving to gain a bigger percentage of that growth, and to do that, we need to address some of the barriers to travel, one of those being the visa delay. We foresee continued growth, so fortunately we have the opportunity to correct that lost decade.”