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The U.S. Travel Association, a trade group that lobbies on behalf of the industry, gave its State of the Travel Industry address this week in Washington, D.C., asserting itself in a way rarely seen before.

In his address, president and CEO Roger Dow laid out an ambitious 10-year agenda for the nation’s industry, ranging from trade and security to sustainability.

The travel industry, both in the U.S. and around the world, has generally struggled to define itself as one cohesive voice and one massive contribution to the economy. While that’s somewhat understandable given its many disparate parts — from hotels and airlines to destination marketing — it also prevents the industry from positioning itself on the legislative agenda in perhaps the way it needs to, especially in the U.S. The address was just one sign that U.S. Travel is aware it needs to do that now more than ever, especially at a somewhat rocky time for the industry.

“Any way you cut it, the past 10 years have been the Comeback Decade for the travel industry, a decade defined by rising growth, surging prosperity and escalating influence,” Dow said in his prepared remarks, referring to the last decade when travel recovered from 9/11 and the 2008 recession nosedive. “So, we start this new decade from an unquestioned position of strength. But that strength isn’t guaranteed.”

headwinds to Come

Among the headwinds faced by U.S. travel currently are the strong dollar, which means travelers choose cheaper destinations; a slowing global economy; and geopolitical events which both put up actual barriers for travelers who want to go abroad, as well deters some others through a mixture of fear and perception. The group is also concerned about America’s loss in market share of the global overseas travel market, which could slip to 11 percent in the coming year, a full percentage point lower than three years prior.

“Based on our latest projections for 2020 we expect domestic travel will grow by 1.4 percent this year with domestic leisure growing faster than domestic business travel.
International inbound travel will increase by a modest 2 percent, amid global headwinds such as a slowing global economy and a strong dollar,” Dow said in his speech.

U.S. Travel Association CEO Roger Dow

One specific geopolitical event that came up was Trump’s recently-extended travel ban, which now applies to six more countries: Nigeria, Myanmar, Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Sudan, and Tanzania. Though it does not affect short-term visitors to the U.S. from those countries — only those who seek to live in the U.S. on an immigrant visa — it furthers a narrative that the current administration, and thus the U.S., is not welcoming to outsiders. Though Dow seemed to brush off concerns that this would keep leisure travelers away.

“It’s extremely important that the policy is understood that it relates to residents who want to come. They keep calling it a travel ban, but that’s not wholly accurate,” Dow said in response to a question from a reporter. “We think it’s very important to strike a balance between being secure and having trade, so we’re very strong on not politicizing things like this to get the facts out and make sure America is safe.”

Of course, the coronavirus currently affecting nearly every corner of the industry also came up. Dow referred to research by Tourism Economics which shows that China’s share of international visitors to the U.S. went from 1 percent in 2000 to 7 percent last year. But he also noted there may be a positive upside to U.S. travel in the event of a long-term dip in travel to China

“A lot of people go to China and are not going to be going to China. Those people are not going to stop traveling, they’re going to go somewhere else. So the opportunity for the U.S. and Brand USA and others is to talk to those people and say what a safe country we are and that we’d love to have you.”

Wind at Its Back

It’s striking that an industry which accounts for 1.7 million domestic jobs still has to make its case to lawmakers that it’s one worth paying attention to, but U.S. Travel has the wind at its back in some sense. In September, President Trump met with a CEO roundtable of high profile executives from the travel industry, the second president after Barack Obama to do so. In addition, Dow spoke of the significance of Brand USA’s seven-year reauthorization by Congress, which happened at the 11th legislative hour in December.

“[Brand USA was renewed] at a time when it’s nearly impossible for any industry to achieve any progress in a divided Congress and an election year – we’re pretty proud of that accomplishment … [it] is a vote of confidence in travel’s importance to America’s economy.”

Though he added it’s not a time to take the “foot off the gas.”

“How do we cement these gains in stature and influence – and build on them for the future?” Dow asked. “How do we get even more proactive in this highly political election year to win over new travel champions and strengthen our bipartisan support? In short, how do we pave the way for another amazing decade for travel?”

U.S. Travel plans to address these questions by advocating for a mix of policy and trade measures, including elevating travel’s role as a major U.S. export, particularly in the important upcoming trade negotiations with Japan, the UK, the European Union, and China. It is also advocating for traveler-friendly alterations to the U.S. tax code, economic incentives, as well as investment in infrastructure, mobility, biometric innovations, and the overall experience of moving through security checkpoints.

The group also has a sustainability agenda, supporting initiatives including projects like Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport’s aim to become the first carbon-neutral airport in North America, and Visit California’s statewide Destination Stewardship plan.

“We’ve built a pretty ambitious agenda, but it aligns perfectly with an industry as ambitious and invigorated as travel,” said Dow.

Photo Credit: Tourists on the Washington Monument. Jonathan Cutrer / Flickr