Excessively long wait times at customs for inbound visitors to the U.S. could derail the nation’s long-term tourism goals, according to a new U.S. Travel Association report. Delays ranging from three to five hours have been documented at major gateway airports in the past year.
At a media teleconference this week, U.S. Travel’s president and CEO Roger Dow made the case that urgent action is needed to improve current U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) entry procedures.
Dow was joined in the teleconference by Jim Abrahamson, CEO, Interstate Hotels & Resorts, and Rosemarie Andolino, commissioner, Chicago Department of Aviation.
The new U.S. Travel report, “Gateway to Jobs & Growth: Creating a Better Traveler Entry Process,” examines the economic impact of unduly long wait times at airports and makes a strong case for improving the entry process.
Long airport wait times are hurting the economy, according to the report, which also lists recommendations for congressional action.
Inaction could cause the U.S. to fall short of its tourism goals, which include hitting a benchmark of 100 million international visitors by 2021, with a resulting $250 billion influx into the economy.
A lost decade
Dow referred to the post-September 11th era as a “lost decade” for travel to the U.S. In that time, visitor numbers to the U.S. increased only by 1.5%, compared to double-digit gains for other international destinations. He blames the disheartening numbers on three main factors.
One is cumbersome visa requirements, which have suppressed visitor numbers. The effect was particularly unfortunate in the emerging BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China).
Another factor was the dearth of travel promotion for the U.S. as a whole.
Both areas have seen improvement of late, however. The number of visa waiver countries has grown from 27 to 37, a move much-lauded by the travel industry. Also, the Travel Promotion Act was enacted. The law established a national tourism marketing scheme for Brand USA.
The third area is still in need of serious attention, and that is the lack of a world class travel entry process.
According to Dow, the hours-long entry wait times are comparable to “having one cashier at Costco during the holidays.”
It’s not only inhospitable, it makes no economic sense, said Dow. Time spent in line is time that newly-arrived visitors aren’t spending their tourist dollars. Moreover, it creates negative perceptions of travel to the U.S. In turn, those negative perceptions generate bad word-of-mouth.
Long entry wait times also create a direct economic impact. According to the U.S. Travel report, delaying and deterring visitors may cost the U.S. economy $95 billion and 518,000 jobs over five years. Major cities take much of the direct hit, in terms of lost lodging, shopping, food, transportation and entertainment spend.
“Every 33 travelers create one U.S. job. And it’s a job that can’t be outsourced. It needs to be performed here in place. Add to that the fact that overseas travelers stay longer and spend more. Improving wait times is a no-brainer ,” said Dow.
Chicago seeing results
A new automated passport control system at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport is proof the process can be improved. The new system features self-serve kiosks with touch-screens for filling out entry forms. The kiosks have drastically reduced entry wait times at the airport, said Andolino.
“Eighty-five percent of arriving passengers clear CBP [customs] in less than 30 minutes. We’ve also seen vastly improved connection times,” she added.
Call to action
No matter how united the travel industry may be, it can’t act alone to improve entry wait time. Congress needs to step in, said Abrahamson.
“It’s clear that Congress should act. We do all that we can at our hotels to welcome and give a first-rate experience to our guests. The same should hold true for the country. Inbound visitors need to feel welcome from the second they get here.”