National Security Analyst Calls On Travel Industry To Speak Up As Washington Considers Laws Impacting Security

by Richard D’Ambrosio
National Security Analyst Calls On Travel Industry To Speak Up As Washington Considers Laws Impacting Security

Jeh Johnson, former secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Photo: USTA


New York
-- As the Trump Administration reviews all aspects of security, it’s up to the travel industry to ensure that the voice of the individual traveler’s is heard, said the speakers at the U.S. Travel Association’s first-ever Secure Tourism Summit in New York yesterday.
 
Speaking before hundreds of attendees, Frances Townsend, former assistant to the president for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism and national security analyst at CBS News, cautioned that rules, regulations and laws impacting millions of travelers could be enacted in a vacuum of consumer input if they don’t speak up for travelers.
 
The current administration is very focused on protecting America’s borders and eliminating, or at least reducing, the threat of terrorism. But she cautioned that restrictive travel policies could be enacted that might impede travelers and make travel less desirable as a discretionary expense.
 
“Policies are made at the Federal level, but execution is at a local level. You can be the voice of the individual traveler to the government. All the agencies are bringing their policy perspective” to the decision-making process, Townshend said. “But the individual’s voice will be lost if you don’t bring it.”
 
“In my old job, the trade associations were very actively and incessantly engaged in getting into my office and having an impact. You are able to make [the impact of potential new rules and laws] real. You can show, ‘this is the number of people affected.’ Your collective voice at the policymaking table is very important. [Department of Homeland Security] Secretary [John] Kelly needs to understand the things he has to consider from a traveler’s perspective.”
 
Kathleen Matthews, former chief communications and public affairs officer at Marriott International and emcee of the event, echoed Townshend’s remarks later in the day. “You need to represent the voice of the traveler,” she said.
 
"We recently sent a letter to Secretary Kelly about the electronics ban," said director of communications, Erika Richter, American Society of Travel Agents, citing an example of how ASTA represents the needs of the travel agent and traveler with key regulators and lawmakers. "This is the tip of the iceberg of what we do."
 
"We have our finger on the pulse of the American traveler and the bookers of travel. Our member agents are advocates for their customers, so we can tell legislators and regulators what the voice of 9,000 members in 140 countries have to say about the impact of these issues on the traveling public. ASTA agents have a unique perspective that other advocates don't."
 
The Summit also extensively addressed the issue of whether or not a “culture of crisis” could at some point begin to impact the consumer’s desire to travel.
 
Keynote speaker Jeh Johnson, former secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said security measures need to be a balance between “physical security and preserving the things of an open society that our people cherish – the freedom to travel, associate, religion, the celebration of our diverse immigration heritage.”
 
Most American parents who have teenagers simply want to know whether it is safe to send a kid to Europe on a three-week trip with their class, he said. “And I would tell them that with a few exceptions, I would say yes, it’s safe. There are hundreds of flights that will get there without incident – and people will return home without incident. Americans should continue to go about their daily lives. I don’t think it is a good idea for those of us sitting in a national security position to scare the daylights out of people.”
 
Matthews recounted how in 2008-2009, after suffering three successive terrorist events in Jakarta and Islamabad, Marriott erected barricades and introduced other visible security measures.
 
“But we also wanted to make sure that through all of this we didn’t lose sight of the fact that a warm welcome is the cornerstone of our business. The balance of security and hospitality is what we have to focus on” as an industry, she said.
 
Still, frank and direct communication is critical to helping travelers make the best decisions for themselves. For example, she said reflecting on cybersecurity concerns for the Beijing Olympics, Marriott warned guests that Marriott properties could not guarantee their digital safety. “We felt the best thing to do was communicate that and give our customers an opportunity to protect themselves,” she said.
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