You could almost hear champagne corks popping as travel industry advocates reacted to President Barack Obama’s announcement last week of new initiatives designed to boost international and domestic tourism to and within the U.S.
The President’s Executive Order, which includes easing visa requirements for foreign travelers entering the U.S. and making the Global Entry Program for frequent travelers permanent, was hailed as a breakthrough by travel industry associations that have long advocated such measures.
Perhaps just as important, it is seen as a sign that the U.S. travel industry may at long last be getting its due respect from Washington.
A great time for travel and tourism
“Folks, this is a great time for American tourism,” Stephen Richer, public affairs advocate for the National Tour Association (NTA), told Travel Market Report. “There’s buzz going on about this that is just incredible.”
“This is a great day for business travel and the economy,” echoed Patricia Higgenbotham, vice president of government relations and general counsel, for the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA).
In addition to boosting tourism to and within the U.S., creating jobs and “get(ting) our economy moving,” the president’s strategy could even help end political gridlock, said Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association.
“His timing could not be better,” Dow said. “Travel is an essential industry for our nation and a bipartisan issue that can unite our country and rally us forward.”
A benefit to agents
Travel agents will benefit from expansions of the Visa Waiver and Global Reentry programs, said ASTA president and CEO Tony Gonchar.
“This will enable our members to assist their customers to see more of the United States, do it more easily and hopefully, more often,” he said.
Travel agents will also benefit because the initiatives show that the federal government recognizes travel as a strategically important industry, said Receptive Services Association of America’s Matt Grayson.
The initiatives put the focus on what travel agents do in the U.S. and on its inbound markets, said Grayson, who is the association’s executive director.
“People see that America is reaching out more, that it wants to attract visitors and they use travel agents and tour operators to book more travel.”
Travel and Tourism Advisory Board
Obama’s tourism initiatives include the appointment of new members, including travel agents and other industry executives, to the existing U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Board.
Among the new members are travel agent Olga Ramudo, president and CEO of Express Travel in Miami, and Jonathan Zuk, president of Amadeo Travel Solutions and vice chairman of the Receptive Services Association of America.
Ramudo told Travel Market Report that she too sees Obama’s travel and tourism strategy benefiting the travel agent community. “The goal of generating incremental travel will result in more business for travel agents.
“As part of the board, I will make every effort to protect our agency community and generate more jobs for our industry,” she added.
“I am thrilled by this new chance to get more Hispanics in the U.S., thereby creating more jobs and opportunities in the travel industry,” Ramudo said.
Ramudo’s appointment “will guarantee a strong voice for travel agents as the Travel and Tourism Advisory Board moves ahead with its government partners,” Gonchar commented.
Easing visa requirements
The expansion of the Visa Waiver Program, which eases visa requirements for foreign visitors to the U.S., is key among the new initiatives. The fact that it specifically includes rule changes for travelers from China and Brazil, two markets with huge tourism potential, is also significant.
According to the NTA’s Richer, the visa hassles faced by travelers from countries such as Brazil and China have severely hurt inbound travel to the U.S. in the past decade.
“We’re [the U.S.] very popular in terms of where people want to go, but someone from Brazil can go to the Europe without a visa,” he said. “If they want to get to the U.S., they often have to travel a long distance in order to get an interview to obtain a visa. And there’s no guarantee that they will get it.”
Response from Brazil
In Brazil, travel agent Charles Franken hailed the U.S. government’s move to ease visa processing. “This announcement from President Obama was very well received in our country,” said Franken, director of Globalis/Ad Viagens e Turismo, a TRAVELSAVERS agency in Sao Paulo.
A large number of Brazilians are applying for tourist visas to the U.S., Franken told Travel Market Report. He noted that the U.S. consulates and embassy in Brazil have been putting in extra hours to reduce waiting time, as the administration promised last year. (See “Cross-Border Plan Is Designed to Spur Inbound Tourism,” Dec. 15, 2011.)
Franken said there’s talk in the Brazilian travel industry that the U.S. will do away with its visa requirement for Brazilian leisure travelers altogether. He added, “We don't believe that will happen very soon, but this might be a first step.”
Brazilian travelers spend an average of $5,000 per person when vacationing in the U.S., said Franken. “That’s why it is very important for the U.S. to open its doors. It will boost the economy there.”
Good for business travelers
The section of the Executive Order that expands and makes permanent the Global Entry Program was also hailed by industry organizations, including ASTA and GBTA. Currently a pilot program, Global Entry enables frequent travelers who are pre-screened through extensive background checks to bypass immigration lines.
Noting that GBTA has supported Global Entry from its inception, president and CEO Michael McCormick said the president’s decision “will make international air travel far more efficient for today’s business travelers.”
Sign of respect
Obama’s announcement indicates that Washington is waking up to the fact that travel and tourism are drivers of the U.S. economy, said industry advocates.
“The fact that the president is taking the time to talk about this as a major element in bringing back and expanding the economy is really something,” said Richer.
“The important role that tourism plays in the national economy has to be understood if we are to get any kind of discussion going,” he added.
GBTA’s Higgenbotham agreed. “The best thing is that travel is on the national stage – even the president is talking about the value of travel in growing the U.S. economy. So this is really good news.”