The new bipartisan tourism subcommittee, co-chaired by senators from tourism-dependent states, kicked off Tuesday with testimony from travel executives on U.S. tourism's biggest recovery challenges ahead — and that in itself is another big light in the tunnel alongside vaccines.
One of the Biden Administration’s earliest moves, signaling a recognition of the U.S. travel industry’s economic muscle, was the creation of a new Senate subcommittee on tourism, trade, and export promotion
This new Senate tourism subcommittee on Tuesday held an inaugural hearing on the “State of Travel and Tourism During Covid-19,” with testimony led by Tori Barnes, executive vice president of public affairs and policy at the U.S. Travel Association (USTA).
Other speakers included hospitality industry veterans from tourism-dependent states Florida and Nevada, including Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority CEO Steve Hill, MGM Resorts International Regional Portfolio President Jorge Perez and Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association CEO Carol Dover.
The subcommittee, which falls under the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, is a long time-in-coming recognition for an industry whose economic might often goes unrecognized in D.C.
If most of the hearing kicked off with gloomy testimony and data detailing Covid’s hit on the U.S. travel economy, the discussions that followed included signs of improvement directly correlated with vaccines, as well as indications that the subcommittee is intent on seeking proposed solutions to key challenges from industry veterans for bringing back U.S. tourism to pre-Covid status.
Recognizing that “far more needs to be done” and the importance of finding bipartisan ways to bring back U.S. travel to its thriving state pre-pandemic, subcommittee chair Senator Jacky Rosen (D-NV) said that along with co-chair Senator Rick Scott (R-FL), the tourism subcommittee would ensure hearing from key stakeholders across the industry over the next months, citing the airlines, outdoor recreation, small businesses and the live entertainment workforce as the nation’s tourism sector charts a path forward.
While the inaugural hearing was meant to focus on hotels and conventions, additional key aspects of reviving U.S. travel recovery challenges were discussed, including bringing back international visitors, funding Brand USA’s marketing efforts, finding solutions to bring back the tourism workforce in light of current shortages, and the restart of cruise tourism for Florida.
“We are hospitality strong, but we have no problem asking for your help and we still desperately need your support as we rebuild,” Dover said.
Restarting international travel
Reiterating its recent request to the Biden administration, the USTA’s Barnes suggested a “data-driven, risk-based roadmap” by May to lift inbound travel restrictions by July.
“While we have the right protections in place to restart international travel and keep our country safe, we do not have clear public health benchmarks or a definitive timeline to reopen our borders,” Barnes said, adding that there was a 76 percent decline in international travel.
Las Vegas’ Hill agreed, noting that the return of international travel was important to Las Vegas and that it was important to work on a method so that international visitors can have confidence in making travel plans to the U.S.
Restoring jobs in hospitality
Florida’s Dover urged the subcommittee to find solutions to help Florida resolve its work shortages problem. “Florida is open for business but we’re desperate for workers; we are in competition with our unemployment system,” Dover said, noting that its industry is facing historic workforce challenges and not being able to find staff despite being allowed to operate at 100 percent capacity.
“Some of our members are even offering bonuses and people are still not showing up to apply for jobs,” Dover said, adding that that business were forced to limit capacity and shorten hours as a result, and that the implications of staff shortages are far-reaching beyond the tourism sector. Dover urged the subcommittee for solutions in ways to tighten unemployment benefit laws.
Perez said that MGM Resorts International employees were coming back as customers were also returning. “As shots in arms are becoming more pervasive, things have turned around relatively quickly,” Perez said.
The USTA said that it supported Congress enacting the Hospitality and Commerce Job Recovery Act, which focuses on increasing travel demand through refundable tax credits for low to middle income families to travel — in turn boosting spending, demand and rehiring. Citing Oxford Economics data, Barnes said this would shorten the recovery period from five to three years while creating 1.5 million jobs and generating $600 billion in spending.
Brand USA Funding support
USTA’s Barnes said that an emergency funding mechanism from Congress was critical for Brand USA, to the tune of $250 million, for marketing the nation to international visitors once borders reopen. The decline in Electronic System for Travel Authorization fee collections, which normally help fund Brand USA along with a match from the private sector which is also suffering, means that the destination management organization is restricted in its marketing efforts,
A Cabinet Level Tourism Lead
Barnes said that the USTA supports the Visit America Act, which would establish an assistant secretary of commerce for tourism, noting that the U.S. is the only top 30 destination in the world without a cabinet level leadership for travel.
“Many countries have cabinet officials we don’t even have an assistant secretary, we need someone to stand up for this huge part of our economy which goes across so many states,” Senator Dan Sullivan (R-AK), who introduced the bill, said at the hearing.
Barnes agreed that the cabinet level leadership was needed and needed to be quickly passed. “We need the whole of the industry focused on and having a cabinet level position would help do that.”
Photo credit: Tourism officials from Las Vegas (pictured) were among those testifying about needs for recovery before a new Senate tourism subcommittee dedicated to tourism on April 13, 2021. Billy Kerr / Flickr