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The travel industry, like any other major player in the U.S. economy, gets involved in the political process to pursue its goals.
So the latest announcement from the U.S. Travel Association is confounding for an industry that should be protecting its interests in an age of protectionism and discrimination.
On Tuesday, U.S. Travel president and CEO Roger Dow announced support for the confirmation of new U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) commissioner Kevin McAleenan.
There’s an issue, though: McAleenan oversaw the chaotic (and possibly illegal) implementation of President Donald J. Trump’s travel ban in January 2017, just a week after taking over as acting commissioner of the CBP, and will be in charge of building the wall across the U.S. border with Mexico, the very idea that has led to a steep drop off in legal international visitation from Mexico.
“On behalf of the U.S. travel community, I extend my hearty congratulations to Commissioner McAleenan, a longtime friend and valued advocate for safe and secure travel to and within the U.S.,” wrote Dow in a statement.
U.S. Travel, then, supports the official tasked to implement a variety of anti-travel and protectionist policies that cut against the group’s main interest of promoting tourism to the U.S.
McAleenan joined CBP in November of 2001, eventually leaving in 2008. He then rejoined the organization in 2010, where he served in leadership positions until being named acting commissioner after the departure of Gil Kerlikowske in January 2017.
His testimony to the Senate Finance Committee provides insight into his thinking on matters directly tied to the success of tourism in the U.S. For one, McAleenan plans on continuing the deployment of biometric exit technology at airports around the country in order to crack down on visa overstays.
McAleenan also plans to continue the CBP policy of searching the electronic devices of U.S. citizens entering the country; in recent years, the number of searches of electronic devices has increased sixfold.
“CBP does not have a tracking mechanism to account for electronic devices searched at the border with the assistance of another federal agency,” McAleenan wrote. “However, the total number of border searches of electronic devices performed for the past five fiscal years are as follows: 5,085 for FY 2012; 5,709 for FY 2013; 6,029 for FY 2014; 8,503 for FY 2015; 19,033 for FY 2016 and 30,151 for FY2017. Although the trend has been for an increasing number of searches, it remains that CBP examines the electronic devices of less than one-hundredth of one percent of travelers arriving to the United States.”
So, travelers can expect to continue to have their devices searched at checkpoints for years to come.
McAleenan has also been involved in enhancing security across the U.S. southern border since the Bush Administration.
“During the Bush Administration, when I served as Director of Antiterrorism and Senior Counselor to then-Commissioner Robert C. Bonner, I was involved with, and supported, the development of U.S. Border Patrol resource requirements to enhance security on the Southwest Border,” McAleenan wrote. “Those requirements, developed in support of the budget processes and security initiatives during the 2004-2006 timeframe, included investments in border wall and security infrastructure in key high-traffic sectors such as Tucson, Arizona, and were largely supported by bipartisan majorities and the Secure Fence Act. Then, as now, I relied on the recommendations of the operators in the field who identified key capabilities needed to enhance border security.”
A Bipartisan Consensus
McAleenan, of course, will serve the priorities of the president and his advisors. He received a unanimous confirmation vote from the Senate, which is surprising given the way last year’s travel ban was enacted.
Still, it’s curious that an organization like U.S. Travel would support a leader who in the last year has been tasked with implementing policies that hurt international inbound tourism and business travel. The trade group has been one of the biggest supporters of Open Skies partnerships, which allow foreign airlines to operate at U.S. airports.
The Trump administration, however, has repeatedly called into question the value of these agreements, which some say allow heavily subsidized foreign carriers to undercut U.S. competition.
It’s hard to square the mission of U.S. Travel with some of its recent support for leaders and policies that run counter to the interests of the travel industry. Hopefully, the organization will fight harder for the interests of the industry in the future.