Travel and tourism in the U.S. is breathing a huge sigh of relief today as vaccinated international travelers start their return. But as we've learned from Covid, the outcome will intertwined with an ongoing pandemic and persistent vaccine inequity.
After a record 20 months of banning entry to travelers from 33 countries, including from the European Union, the UK, India, China, and South Africa, the United States reopening its borders to fully vaccinated visitors marks a momentous day for the U.S. travel industry.
It’s also hopefully a symbolic turned corner for tourism on the worst of the Covid pandemic.
Restrictions lifting on the U.S. land border with Mexico and Canada will also have a significant impact on economic recovery for U.S. cities and destinations — travelers from these two destinations by air and land made up half the visitor volume to the U.S. in 2019 or just over 40 million, with Mexico travelers ranking third as the highest spending visitors to America.
Uncertainties remain, of course, even as progress in international travel and family travel is sure to benefit the travel industry going into the holidays and 2022. That comes despite ongoing Covid infections around the world, including in low- to middle-income countries where vaccine access is lagging.
Still, the U.S. travel industry is celebrating today while expecting pent-up demand to begin manifesting itself. Today’s wider U.S. reopening also coincides with the U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo announcing on Monday that the Economic Development Administration is allocating $314 million in grants to 34 states and the District of Columbia to “accelerate travel, tourism and outdoor recreation.”
“What’s going to happen today didn’t need a whole lot of priming of the pump, it was ready to go and we’re going to see that people are coming back in great numbers and that intent is enormous,” said Chris Thompson, CEO of Brand USA. “Now we just have to start throwing gas on the fire afterwards, and that’s kind of what we’re going to be doing is fueling the reasons why people love the USA and reminding them we’re right here.”
But just how quickly will the recovery of U.S. travel unfold in the year ahead? And how does will Brand USA, the marketing arm in charge of promoting America to the world, plan to instill confidence and attract high spending international visitors to return to its shores?
Skift spoke to Thompson about the reopening of borders to international travel and what’s ahead for the tourism recovery of America, which brought in $239 billion in export income in 2019 and supported 1.2 million jobs. Below is an edited version of the interview.
Lebawit Lily Girma: It’s an exciting day and we understand you’re in New York City for it. What’s the mood like in the industry and what can we expect these upcoming months in terms of returning visitors and recovery?
Chris Thompson: Today, for those of us in the industry, it’s a celebration. We’ve been waiting for this day for obviously a lot longer time than we had expected.
I think the overall tone today is excitement, enthusiasm, optimism. You know, it’s been a long time and way longer than we had ever had planned and hoped. Certainly, all of us have had to deal with a world pandemic like this generation has never had to face and you know coming out of it, as going into it was crazy and unpredictable and with some levels of uncertainty, coming out of it still the same way.
We’re basically still in it, we can see the light tunnel coming out of it. But I think this is a first big step. I think this step that our government took — that today is the day where we open our borders to vaccinated visitors — is our government putting a stake in the ground and saying this is how we’re going to learn to live with it, and it’s a big step.
Over the course of the next days and months on into the new year you’re going to start seeing air connectivity come back, you’re going to start seeing our industry, which got a big injection of energy and optimism when our domestic economy opened, now that the international economy comes back particularly for a destination here like New York that’s so dependent on international travel and visitors, I think that’s gonna be another injection into our hospitality industry and community to be able for them to kind of get back to rebuilding, reopening and get back to whatever the next norm is gonna look like.
Girma: Do we have any sense at this point of what the visitor numbers are looking like or what the arrival numbers may be?
Thompson: It’s hard to say, as this whole thing has been unpredictable. We’ve had to rely on a lot of people that do forecasting; first and foremost is our Commerce Department but then as well, Oxford Economics. The recovery could be as long as 2025 for the first year we get back to some semblance of what the 2019 numbers look like.
I’m an eternal optimist. And I think I like to think a lot of folks in our industry are optimistic. The domestic tourism economy came back faster than the forecasters suggested. I’m thinking and hopeful that the international one will do the same.
I think we’ll get a pretty big lift starting today. But I think in order for us to get back there’s still a lot of rebuilding that has to happen and it’s going to be across the entire organization. There’s still some levels of uncertainty, though. You know, our job is to try to make uncertainty a little clearer.
I just went to London for our event that’s the first time I traveled internationally; all the things that I had to do to get ready to be able to go to London — now that I’ve done it, I said well, that’s nothing, it’s just a different level of accountability. I think once the uncertainty of making the first trip and people realize that it’s a very clear path to what you got to do and what you got to prove and show to be able to come in, then I think we’ll start seeing a more rapid increase in the return to what we used to see.
One last thing — this has never been a demand issue, it’s not that we’re any less aspirational than we were, it’s just the pandemic curtailed the ability for our friends and visitors from around the world to be able to travel to the U.S. Now that they’re returning, I think we’re going to see a really large pent up demand that will be realized and then how the ability for it to stay at the high levels of initial interest and travel will be what we seek over the next couple of months.
Girma: Brand USA just hosted Travel Week in London. Can you give an overview of how that went and what you were aiming for?
Thompson: We launched that event in 2019 and it was met with rave reviews, both from the buyer community, and our suppliers. So we were really looking forward and always intended to take it to London for a second year and then to take it all over Europe every other year. Of course the pandemic didn’t allow us to do that.
We created our Brand USA marketplace, which was the main reason why we created that digital meeting platform to be able to host our event last year. And certainly that was a good way for us to try to create as much of a face to face opportunity that wasn’t, as we could.
So when we were able to bring it back again this year, I think the optimism and enthusiasm was just through the roof. What do they say, better be lucky than smart? So our first day of IPW is when our government announced that our borders were going to open in November. Well, that just lit that whole international community up that was in Las Vegas; our event was near sold out but immediately that day it sold out.
The show was amazing. On our peak day we had over 100 of the travel trade companies that package travel out of all of Europe. We had 130 of our suppliers there, they each had 14 business exchange appointments a day for three days, so 42 appointments, full books of appointments,
One of the things that happened really organically was about the time that they made all those announcements then we started getting this interest from the CEOs, the Fred Dixon’s (CEO, NYC & Company) of the world from here in New York and all the CEOs of the major destinations that didn’t in the first year necessarily normally attend this event, but because of all the excitement, the optimism about coming, we ended up having 16 CEOs from cities and states across the country that attended this event that we weren’t actually planning on. So we created a whole separate track at Travel Week just for the CEOs and we garnered the attention of over 40 media across Europe that came in just to test to talk with those folks.
We had all the major airlines coming in and giving one on ones about what they’re going to do in their different airlines. So the attention that we got from the CEOs, all my colleagues that are you know, run the destinations at the same state level was just unbelievable. And so that just created a whole different event than even we were planning.
Girma: What are two or three ways specific ways Brand USA plans to bring back international visitors in 2022?
Thompson: We’ve been planning for this for seems like a year for this day to come so that we could get back to doing what we normally do.
We’ve had an engagement framework we’ve been waiting to pull the trigger on – one is prove we’re ready, two is to issue a welcome back and then three is do as much as we can — we’ve always talked about us being on the top of the funnel where we drive intent and inspiration and we needed to push it down the funnel as far as we could.
So we have some really calculated ways that we’re going to do that, which is very different from what we’ve done in the past.
To prove we’re ready, we’ve been launching a global influencers campaign where we’ve had influencers that started coming in from countries all around the world to show the world that we’re ready and to leverage their platforms, their followers, with our platforms and our followers to send that message out.
We launched our United Stories campaign a couple years ago. So we’re going to launch a redo, I guess an evolution of that campaign which is inviting our other residents of the USA to come forward and talk about what makes their little piece of the USA experience special, and then invite our friends and visitors from around the world to tell their story about the USA, that have been here or have been dreaming about it to hype all the amazing diversity of geography experiences and people delivering those experiences every day. It’s actually been starting kind of a soft start but it’s it’s it’s really going to ramp up starting today.
And then on the engagement or activation side we’re partnering I guess a greater levels and in greater numbers, with OTAs (online travel agencies) and travel trade, travel media, airlines, to really help do the best job we can that once we capture the interest to push it down the funnel into activation.
So that’s kind of the three phases that we’ve been planning for over the last year. And today was the one of the biggest days we needed, which was get our borders open because that was the most restrictive criteria, the gating criteria that had to happen which was outside of our control so that now that that day is here we can launch. We’ve been launching quietly through the influencers, but now we can launch everything.
Girma: China was was number one in terms of spending in the U.S. The border is open to them now, even though it’s a unilateral reopening. What efforts are you making to have Chinese travelers keep America in mind?
Thompson: We have digital reach and relevance in China also through the digital social platforms we’ve built there so they’re going to receive our messaging and we’re going to fuel their intent as much as ever. Their ability to come and whether and when they’ll come certainly depends on lots of other issues and so we’re gonna be doing our part and we know that again, yes, the U.S. is no less aspirational for our great friends and visitors from China so we’re optimistic and hopeful that at some point we’ll get back to that being our number one spend market.
Girma: Vaccinated-only entry means there are still many more who will not be able to travel to the U.S. because as you know, vaccine equity has been a huge problem in terms of some destinations not being able to access vaccinations. That’s also a threat to travelers everywhere, including the U.S. What are your thoughts as a travel leader — should the travel industry do more to advocate for vaccine access in other destinations which will ultimately affect U.S. travel?
Thompson: As we went into this, and now as we’ve been dealing with for well over 20 months, it’s always been about, we have to find a way to get on top of the pandemic. It’s always been about the science and it’s always about health and safety and it still is.
So we’re still in a pandemic, we can see a light at the end of tunnel, a post pandemic endemic consideration of Covid. But we still have to be concerned about the science and the health and safety and I said that’s what our government when they made the announcement that we realized we need to get move into a point where we learned to live with it and the safest way that they could provide an opportunity for visitors to start coming back to the United States was to require vaccinations require testing, require contact tracing protocols, that they already have to do on the airplane.
So it’s a start and I won’t get into all the other considerations and all the other conversations and everything else that’s going into that because you know, all we can do is deal with what we have.
And so I applaud the government, Secretary Raimondo and our great friends at NTTO (National Travel and Tourism Office) have been awesome advocates within all federal government, informing conversations about how important travel and tourism is in to our country’s economy and otherwise, to bring in people and cultures together and just in general, helping the world have a better understanding of each other. And I think all those voices were heard and I think it was one of the reasons why we got to where we are today.
Girma: Any other message you’d like to share this big day for U.S. travel and tourism?
Thompson: I have to take hats off to our team, our planning that’s been in place throughout the pandemic, but certainly in the last six months where we’ve been getting ready for today is what we’re now activating. And fortunately, all the things that we anticipated and then otherwise planned for are actually happening. And so now we get to get back to what we were doing which is telling the amazing story of what makes the USA the USA.
We’ve been collecting an inventory of what some of the destinations around the country as far as recognizing today, particularly those that have international flights. coming in. So there’s a handful of really great celebrations going on. They industry, they’ve been anxiously awaiting this day.
Our industry is going to be opening arms and welcoming our international visitors for all the flights coming in today, saying welcome back. I think it’s going to be a big old love fest.
Photo credit: A file photo of Christopher Thompson, CEO of Brand USA. WTTC / Flickr.com