The American Society of Travel Agents remains extremely busy this spring, advocating at the state and federal levels on a host of proposed laws and rules that could impact travel agents by dampening consumer spend, increasing travel agent costs, or causing additional risk or liability.
In a wide-ranging press conference, ASTA senior vice president of government and industry affairs Eben Peck on Tuesday provided updates on where these bills and regulations stand.
Peck provided a sanguine review of what he called “Travel Ban 2.0,” President Donald Trump’s second attempt at an executive order that restricts foreign nationals traveling to the United States.
ASTA is “watching this like a hawk, with an eye toward any impact on our members’ business,” Peck said. “It’s kind of hard to get a read on the situation,” versus the first travel ban, where agents reported clients canceling trips or worried about how they would be received if they traveled abroad, including Mexico.
“They certainly earn points for the rules having more clarity, and giving more lead time. There is pretty detailed guidance,” in the current order, and travel agents seem less concerned than they were at first. “I haven’t heard a lot from our members the last few days, compared with the previous one,” Peck noted. “There was a boom of feedback from the first travel ban, and that has dropped off. We feel like it’s important to the health of the industry to not get freaked out about this stuff.”
Initially, ASTA was fielding a poll to quantify agent impact, but due to the fluid nature of developments, Peck described a poll as “difficult” to execute. “Things have changed on a daily basis. We’re thinking maybe let the dust settle, and then take a look a few months out to see if this had an impact or if people had an emotional reaction.”
Agents and consumers should remain calm about EU travel visas
Peck also offered his opinion about the recent European Parliament hand vote to require U.S. citizens to obtain a travel visa to visit the European Union. The United States has yet to grant visa-free travel to citizens of Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Poland and Romania, while the European Union allows Americans to travel freely throughout the 28 nations that make up the bloc. E.U. rules call for equal treatment for all Union citizens.
Peck noted that the vote was just one more phase of a “long running dispute,” and nothing new for the travel industry. “It’s pretty clear from researching the issue that the E.U. parliament doesn’t have a tremendous amount of power on this. There’s no cause for panic,” he said
In the past, ASTA has worked with Poland to try to get the restrictions lifted, but there are very strict metrics, like the number of Poles overstaying visits to the United States, that Poland has been unable to meet.
Other issues are unresolved
Peck also noted that the Department of Transportation (DOT) recently suspended its rulemaking proceedings on the disclosure of ancillary fees. ASTA has been advocating for full transparency so consumers can see what fees are being charged and how much they cost through every booking channel. It is concerned that consumers might blame agents for being charged fees, like additional bags, because the airlines don’t fully disclose them. With a new administration in place, DOT secretary Elaine Chao “naturally wants a chance to look at all of this,” Peck said.
“It’s disappointing, as we have been pushing for transparency, and this will continue to be delayed. When they pick it back up, we are going to continue to keep pushing,” he said.
ASTA also has been working its contacts on Capitol Hill, trying to obtain congressional support for a bill to remove travel agents from a Department of Labor “blacklist” that requires them to pay overtime on non-exempt employees. One of the Trump administration’s unfilled cabinet positions is Labor.
“We’re waiting for the nomine [Alexander Acosta] to go through the confirmation process. But meanwhile, we are talking to friends on Capitol Hill because Congress can always overrule on topics like this. A number of congress people are interested in sponsoring a bill to get agents off the blacklist.”
Ohio tax bill
Meanwhile, in Ohio, Governor John Kasich is proposing to expand the state’s 6.25% sales tax to seven new sales categories, including "travel agent: pre-packaged tours and other travel services," as part of his proposed 2017-18 budget bill. The state legislature has until the end of June to pass a budget.
“This tax will put agents in Ohio at a disadvantage against agents in states that don’t have this tax,” he said. “We’re not even sure what the tax would be applied to. Will it be on gross bookings? Commissions? Service Fees?” ASTA estimated the extension will raise taxes by more than $65,000 every year for clients of every Ohio travel agency.
ASTA is working with its Mid America Chapter and a coalition of service industries to defeat the proposed tax extension, and is urging its members to contact their state legislators “as soon as possible. While the budget deadline is June, most of the heavy lifting will be done well before then,” ASTA warned, linking members to a website with state legislator contact information.