Skift Take

While the travel exemption opens up opportunities for international students, the U.S. still has a long way to go to accommodate them. It begs the question of how much these students are willing to endure and how much more this will continue to hurt the travel economy.

While the travel industry is beginning to restore some of its losses due to the pandemic, it faces a hard comeback in one sector —  student travel.

Remaining travel restrictions, some visa challenges, and fears over new Covid variants are keeping many students grounded in their home countries across the globe.

The good news is that starting August 1, the United States will now extend its national interest exemptions (NIEs) to international students with F-1 and M-1 visas intending to begin or continue their program this fall. This means they will no longer need to seek a national interest form from an embassy to travel. The NIEs were only applicable before to students from the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland and the countries in Europe’s Schengen area.

This has been the latest step in re-opening for the international students since covid sent them home last year.

Still, after a year of being grounded, the 2021-22 academic year looks bleak for the travel economy for which students have historically contributed.

“No one wants to write off this year,” said Daniel Lloyd, senior vice-president of U.S. operation at Diversity Travel. “But as we go down this road, there is still that need to recover and rebound. And a lot of industries depend on it, especially the travel sector.”

In the peak year, 2018, international students contributed $45 billion to the U.S. economy overall, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. By 2019-20 academic year, the number had decreased to $38.7 billion. International students also supported 415,996 jobs in the 2019-20 academic year, a 42,000 decrease from the academic year prior, as estimated by NAFSA, an international education advocacy group. The Commerce Department did not break out for travel specifically.

But it’s clear that much of their contributions come from tuition, accommodation fees, and living expenses as international students often pay more than domestic students. However, their travel and leisure expenses are also included.

For Zihan Liu, a doctorate student at the University of Houston, traveling outside and within the U.S. has been difficult. Liu said while she remained grounded, she missed out on social events and connections with families and friends back in her home country, China.

“Two of my friends had their weddings this year that I had to miss,” Liu said. “Also, I missed some family events which I really wanted to join but I could not.”

She attributed unaffordable flights and lengthened quarantine time in China and U.S. to the reasons why she could not go home.


While the NIEs may be celebrated, the implementation depends on availability of a U.S. embassy or consulate. A survey done by the Cato Institute, a public policy research group, showed that about three out of four consulates remain fully or partially closed to routine visa processing, affecting about 71 percent of all visa applicants.

Christiane Spitzmueller, a professor of psychology at University of Houston, said this was one of the biggest challenges she faces while recruiting students for her program.

“Some of them are only open for emergency appointments,” Spitzmueller said. “So it’s become a lot more difficult to get these appointments and for people to actually come on over — a much larger challenge than what it used to be, before the pandemic.”

While the number of academic student visas has been gradually decreasing for the past five years, 2020 saw about 70 percent decrease compared to 2019.

Although a recent survey by Flywire shows that a lot of students are still interested in studying abroad, over half of students surveyed realize that the process of obtaining a student visa in the next year will be difficult.

Losing Attraction

The number of international students in the U.S. has been over a million consecutively for the past five years, with the 2018-19 being the peak at almost 1.1 million students. This number is according to the 2020 Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange released by the Institute of International Education (IIE) and the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

The U.S. is considered the top in destination attractiveness, having the largest international student enrollment. Coming in second, is the U.K.

“I think that everybody underestimates how powerful that UK-US corridor really is,” said Lloyd. “Financially, it’s been a huge impact on the industry having that corridor still closed.”

However, during the 2019-20 academic year, the U.K. saw a 12.15 percent increase in its international student enrollment compared to the previous academic year. The U.S. on the other hand saw a 1.8 percent decrease.

Even some schools have begun taking action to get international students back on campus and encourage interest in their international exchange and study abroad programs.

“I know from way back then, when this all started, it was a big difference and a big adjustment for campuses who really prize that internationalization that happens on campus,” said Wendy Morrill, the research and education manager at the WYSE Travel Confederation. “We had some folks talking about how they were trying to recreate that with social media and online with a bunch of content creation.”

Scrambling Businesses

Their importance to the local tourism economy is so great, businesses are finding it hard to survive without them.

Businesses such as tour providers and other leisure activities have noticed the absence of students and these businesses have seen a hit in their partnership with accommodations such as hostels in the student travel market.

“I think when things start to move towards a better direction, you’ll see that happen again,” Morrill said. “So I think it’s another area that’s been highly impacted by the lack of international students.”

Hostels and destinations are trying to tap into the family market doing domestic travel.

“As long as international students are not coming in, we know from the international network globally, that they’ve really tried to just tap into the domestic travel market,” Morrill said about hostels. “There, they have shared accommodations that tends to work well for families with small children.”


Although the NIEs re-opens the country in a way, advisors say the lack of clear guidance on the requirements for migrating students traveling into and out of the U.S., in terms of Covid vaccinations and quarantines, at the federal level, is restricting. Right now, schools are left to make the choices about who can come on and leave the campus.

Schools that offer scholarship programs for its international students would need clearer guidelines in order to risk sending out their students abroad or sponsoring international students to come to their school.

“We’re in a different world now, dealing with a very anxious group of travelers,” Lloyd said “It’s almost like a new age of travelers, as safety and risk have become a high priority.”

The U.S. is not alone in its lack of clearer federal guidelines. In some countries like Australia, the state governments have decided to take action on their own.

The availability and rate of Covid vaccinations all over the world pales in comparison to the U.S. The lack of Covid vaccines in certain parts of the world will likely make it difficult for students to commit to the academic year this fall.

“I think that as confidently as the U.S. can put out that message, that, American vaccinated travelers can absolutely be welcomed by other countries and vice versa, it really does hinge on that,” Lloyd said. “I think that the UK-U.S. corridor will be the most confident move we can make to a return to travel.”


UPDATED: This story was updated to include a student survey by Flywire on visa issuance.


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Tags: coronavirus, coronavirus recovery, covid-19, student travel, travel restrictions, visas

Photo credit: Grounding of international students will hurt the travel economy Jan Vašek / Pixabay

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