While the U.S. travel industry has made huge gains in facilitating inbound tourism, the challenge of garnering robust congressional support for travel remains daunting, according to U.S. Travel Association president and CEO Roger Dow.
There are not many individuals in government who will take the lead in fighting for travel, Dow said last week, just one year after Obama mandated a national travel policy. “This industry has support that is a mile wide and an inch deep.”
Dow has been very much of an activist leader for the U.S. Travel Association, with a particular focus on bringing to the attention of the government, consumers and the trade itself the importance of the travel industry to the U.S. economy.
Travel Market Report spoke with Dow just as U.S. Travel was releasing the first of several planned research reports about travel’s effect on the economy, business, health and education. (See: For Romance, Travel Beats Jewelry or Flowers, Says U.S. Travel Survey)
We asked Dow to discuss the big picture for U.S. Travel in 2013 and beyond.
What are your major initiatives this year?
Dow: We don’t want to lose traction on the phenomenal gains we have made on visa waiting times. The State Department, with our encouragement, has cut wait times in China and Brazil from over 100 days to five days. With the transition in government to the second Obama term, we don’t want to lose momentum.
We also want to add more visa waiver countries. We now have 11 on the list. When South Korea was added, inbound numbers from there went up 44% in 18 months, while the rest of the world was up only 3%.
We want to add Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Poland, Israel and four or five others. There is dialogue currently between the U.S. government and Brazil.
You have said the visa waiver program may be misnamed. Why is that?
Dow: The name makes it sound like we’re looking the other way while people sneak in. It’s actually the opposite. South Korea had to guarantee access to tremendous data about its travelers. The program actually makes the country a lot more secure than simply interviewing people for three minutes.
What other issues are there around incoming travel?
Dow: There is a huge focus on customs and border protection. Inbound travel increased 11% last year, but the number of customs and immigration people at the airports has been flat because of budgeting. We are making tremendous efforts in this area.
We have 12 airports now on our board, and they are helping us to push for better staffing as well for a better Trusted Travelers program, where formalities are eased for frequent flyers who have a low-risk background. We now have Trusted Traveler programs at 26 airports.
Thinking about all your efforts, what are your biggest challenges?
Dow: This industry has support that is a mile wide and an inch deep. We have a few proponents who vigorously promote the industry – like Sens. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Congressman Sam Farr (D-Calif.). These are people who really get it.
The sad thing for me is when I worked on the Travel Promotion Act, we had people in Congress from places like California and Florida who didn’t sign up. I don’t understand that.
We will push hard to build our list of champions in the Congress. Who are our 25 champions? Who knows them and can talk to them? How can we make sure we go beyond the inch-deep status? The bottom line is we don’t have a lot of people who stand up and fight for the industry.
On top of all these challenges, we have all these new people in the administration, including in cabinet posts like State, Commerce and Transportation, and all these new Congress people. We have a big job of educating these folks over the next six months.
At a recent NTA meeting, there was discussion of U.S. Travel taking a leading role in lobbying the government on travel and tourism issues. What’s that about?
Dow: We are joining with other industry groups to increase our voices from every direction and speak with one voice. It doesn’t do well by the industry if NTA says one thing and we say another. We are trying to bring the industry together. That means more meetings with other associations and industries.
What has been the response to your report on travel industry careers?
Dow: We are looking to dispel the myth that industry jobs are low-paying. Our report has staggering numbers showing that even if people start at a low salary, they can eventually do much better than in other industries. (See: Travel Jobs Yield Higher Earnings, More Education , Dec. 6, 2012.)
I recently saw the chairman of Manpower, the employment firm, on TV, and he said that travel and tourism was outperforming all but one other industry in growth, but that the jobs are low paying. I sent them the report and said he should take a closer look at this industry.
The problem is that they lumped part-timers in with full-timers. We have many students and part-timers doing summer jobs, and that skews some of the numbers.
What else is on your radar?
Dow: We are starting a more concentrated focus on infrastructure issues. The FAA says that within 10 years 500 million more people will be going through airports. And inbound travelers will increase from 60 million to 100 million.