In a recent webinar, the U.S. Travel Association laid out its top priorities to promote travel to and within the U.S., and what it's doing to reach those goals.
REPORT FROM THE U.S.—The reauthorization of Brand USA, public awareness of Real ID requirements, the visa waiver program and national infrastructure are the biggest priorities for the U.S. Travel Association heading into 2020.
To explain its progress toward achieving its goals, the association hosted a webinar on its efforts with Congress, the administration and the traveling public. Tori Barnes, U.S. Travel EVP of Public Affairs and Policy, explained the association is working with lawmakers and agencies on matters that could help increase travel to and within the U.S.
Both houses of Congress are working through appropriation processes, but it’s unclear whether legislators will reach an agreement by the 21 November deadline, or push off decisions until December or into the new year, Barnes said.
For the travel sector, reauthorization of funding for Brand USA is a vital part of that appropriations deal, she said.
Brand USA, which promotes international travel to the U.S., has a strong return on investment with a ratio of about 25:1, she said. The program is responsible for $47.7 billion of economic input in the U.S. and has helped create 52,000 jobs every year since 2013.
U.S. Travel has been working on supporting the program from multiple angles, such as its government relations team on Capitol Hill, its grassroots teams, arranging media coverage and working with industry partners, she said.
Over the summer, reauthorization bills were introduced into the House (Bill 3850) and Senate (Bill 2203) and approved by the Senate Commerce Committee, with only one vote in opposition. At that time, Barnes and Brand USA President Chris Thompson testified in front of the House subcommittee on energy and commerce.
“Together, we really articulated how valuable Brand USA is for boosting international inbound travel to the U.S. and keeping us globally competitive,” she said. “This hearing was really a critical and necessary step forward in advancing the legislation. We’re hopeful that the committee will mark up the bill … as soon as next week, to really put us in a in a good position.”
In 2005, Congress passed the Real ID Act to set new security standards for state-issued driver’s licenses and identification cards. Starting 1 October 2020, travelers will need a Real ID-compliant form of identification to fly.
The U.S. Travel Association launched a campaign on 1 October this year to improve public awareness of this requirement after a study found an estimated 182 million Americans are unlikely to have a Real ID by the deadline, Barnes said. Another 57% of Americans are unaware of the deadline next year, she said.
“In fact, if Real ID standards were enforced today, 99 million Americans would not have an acceptable alternative ID, and almost 80,000 American travelers would be denied boarding on the first day. If that trend were to continue for a week, over half a million travelers would be turned away, which would cost as much as $300 million in lost travel.”
The USTA has been pushing an awareness campaign in the media, Barnes said. She also testified in front of the U.S. Senate subcommittee on security to share the association’s perspective on the future of airport security. The association used this opportunity to talk about ways to mitigate negative effects of Real ID and other policies, such as not turning away travelers at security checkpoints and moving away from aggressive pat downs.
The association is asking the Department of Homeland Security to allow the Trusted Traveler Program, through which TSA PreCheck operates, to be an alternative to Real ID, she said.
“We think this one has the best chance of moving forward,” she said, adding that legislation is being drafted.
The USTA has created a toolkit that’s available for anyone to look through and share, Barnes said, noting those looking to get more involved in spreading awareness are welcome. Airline and hotel companies can help inform the traveling public through their loyalty programs, FAQ pages on their websites, reservation confirmation emails and social media, she said.
Visa Waiver Program
The Visa Waiver Program, which allows citizens of eligible countries to visit the U.S. for up to 90 days without having to obtain a visa, is an effective way of attracting international visitors, Barnes said.
“Inclusion in the VWP is a proven way to really increase the inbound visitation for the member country,” she said.
Poland was formally nominated to join the VWP as a member nation. Within three years of Poland joining, the U.S. could expect to welcome an additional 97,000 Polish visitors, she said. That would equate to more than $300 million in annual spending, which would in turn produce nearly $720 million in economic output and support 4,200 jobs.
The USTA had a meeting with the U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security about adding other qualified countries to the program, and continues to support adding countries such as Israel and Brazil.
The travel association is also supporting bills in both the House and Senate that would address the maintenance backlog and protect national parks by investing in park infrastructure, Barnes said.
“The biggest challenge,” she said, is finding the $12 billion in funding, half of which is “needed to address surrounding roads and bridges” at national parks.
Bipartisan agreement on comprehensive infrastructure isn’t likely right now, but that doesn’t mean it’s time to hold back on support, Barnes said.
The FAST Act, also known as the highway reauthorization bill, needs to be reauthorized by next October, she said, and could help the USTA achieve some of its infrastructure goals.
“We’ve been working with the department of transportation and Congress on language that would help move the needle incrementally,” she said.
“We know that investment (in infrastructure) of all kinds, on all levels, is really necessary, so this has the full attention of U.S. Travel, and not only to the end of the year, but well beyond,” she said.