On May 11, more than three years after the pandemic brought global travel to a halt, the U.S. finally lifted its vaccine requirement for international inbound travelers.
Geoff Freeman is CEO of the U.S. Travel Association.
The requirement, the last such inbound-travel requirement in the world, was eliminated just days after the World Health Organization declared the pandemic no longer a global health emergency.
After consistent appeals from leaders across the industry, this development eases a significant entry barrier ahead of the busy summer travel season and also brings the U.S. travel industry into a new era.
On one hand, the lifting of this requirement is symbolic. It’s a sign that the darkest days of the pandemic are firmly past, for our industry and our country.
On the other hand, it marks a new beginning for our industry and an opportunity to gain the competitive edge in attracting international visitors.
A key driver of the U.S. economy
This sector has historically been a major driver of the U.S. economy. In 2019, international visitor spending in the U.S. generated $239 billion in travel exports and a $54 billion trade surplus, which lowered the overall U.S. trade deficit by 10%.
Today, demand for travel to the U.S. is clearly building, but arrivals and spending in this sector are still lagging. The U.S. Travel Association estimates that international travel spending will only have recovered to 71% of prepandemic levels this year.
The industry is striving to not only regain what was lost, but also to grow the inbound travel sector to be stronger and more competitive than ever in coming years.
Meanwhile, countries around the world are taking advantage of international travel’s comeback to refresh their own strategies, whether in terms of marketing, improving the travel experience or actively engaging with other markets to facilitate bilateral tourism. The global travel market has become increasingly competitive.
To win the race for global travelers, the U.S. must first ensure the entry process is as simple as possible.
There’s still work to do
Eliminating the vaccine requirement was a step, but there are still significant barriers to entry that the federal government must now address in order to achieve its visitation goal of 90 million annual international travelers by 2027.
First, wait times to obtain a U.S. visitor visa for first-time applicants in top markets remain embarrassingly high. While the State Department has made some progress, U.S. Travel has long pushed for more significant and consistent results.
Worldwide, all visa-requiring markets — excluding China, which has yet to fully restore international flights — face average interview wait times in excess of 500 days.
The picture is worse in some of the top U.S. source markets.
Current average interview wait times are 517 days in Brazil, 381 days in India and 646 days in Mexico as of May 5. U.S. Travel estimates that the U.S. could lose 2.6 million visitors and $7 billion in spending this year because of these excessive wait times.
U.S. Travel has called on the Biden administration to implement proven, effective strategies at consulates worldwide, such as increasing staffing and extending operating hours. Additionally, the federal government must ensure efficiency at U.S. air and land borders.
As demand returns, customs wait times have increased at some of our nation’s gateway airports. At varying points in April, noncitizens experienced customs wait times that exceeded two hours at each of our top five international airports.
It’s critical that there are enough U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers at U.S. airports and other ports of entry to meet demand.
More customs officers at preclearance locations around the world can also help alleviate pressure on the system and lower wait times. These officers clear travelers before they reach American soil, bolstering security and enabling billions of dollars in spending by international visitors each year.
The challenges that remain on the horizon are each solvable, but the lifting of the vaccine requirement is a milestone in our country’s recovery and a step forward into a new era for the U.S. travel industry.
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