GEOFF BALLOTTI, THE new national chair of the U.S. Travel Association, has a positive outlook on the state of international tourism, noting the most important goal of the nonprofit is to educate members of Congress and other stakeholders about the benefits of easing restrictions for foreign visitors.
While USTA CEO Roger Dow has voiced concerns that proposed travel bans on Muslim-majority countries will deter visitors from other nations, Ballotti, who assumed the volunteer position earlier this month, said he is optimistic the nation’s $2.5 billion industry will see a boost in business in large part because President Trump understands the value of tourism to America’s economy. “We have a pro-business, a pro-travel and a pro-hotel chief executive officer who we are very optimistic will be good for our business,” said Ballotti, during an interview with Asian Hospitality on the trade show floor at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center in San Antonio, Texas, where AAHOA was holding its annual conference.
“It’s all about being open from a border standpoint, from a protectionism standpoint, and it’s advocating with the new administration we believe will be more collaborative to our business than any of the last several administrations,” he said.
In his first weeks in office, Trump signed executive orders temporarily barring visitors to the U.S. from seven predominantly Muslim countries in the Middle East and Africa – which was suspended by the courts but spawned a second ban that removed Iraq from the list. That ban is stymied by a court injunction.
Dow said the ban will harm the U.S. travel industry. He predicts a 4 percent decline in international visits.
Although international travel to U.S. was up in February USTA anticipates a negative impact in the coming months.
Ballotti is not the only chief hotel executive concerned about the impact the White House’s politics are having on the U.S. tourism industry. Arne Sorenson, Marriott International CEO, said last week travel to the U.S. from the Middle East has plummeted at least 20 percent since Trump took office in January. Sorenson was in Dubai on April 11 and spoke to Arabian news outlets about Trump’s travel bans and his outspoken position on immigration from Mexico. “The travel bans are not good, period,” Sorenson is quoted. “We do believe that travel to the United States out of the Middle East is down in excess of 20 percent and we think travel to the U.S. from Mexico is down between 10-20 percent. And that’s not surprising; those are the markets where the political noise in the U.S. is the most audible.”
In addition to the attempted bans, the federal government announced on March 21 it is temporarily prohibiting the use of electronic devices such as tablets and laptops on board any flight traveling direct from 10 airports across nine countries, including the UAE and Qatar. Federal officials said the ban is based on intelligence about the flights that fly from those airports in the Middle East and Africa. Some carriers are providing laptops to business class passengers.
Ballotti said advocating on behalf of the travel industry is more important than ever as even longtime tried-and-true cross-border programs such as the Visa Waiver Program are being challenged in Congress. The VWP allows citizens from designated countries to travel to the U.S. for business or leisure trips for up to 90 days without first obtaining a “tourist” visa from a U.S. embassy or consulate. The reciprocal program involves 38 countries and allows about 20 million people into the U.S. each year. It is overseen by the Department of Homeland Security. Ballotti said he would like to see the program extended to more countries. Educating lawmakers is key to accomplishing that. In 2015, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein called VWP the “soft underbelly” of America’s national security. She and other members of Congress have called for a tightening in the qualifications.
Ballotti said he wants to “get those issues out front and center” so the program can be saved and expanded. “More than 60 percent of all international travelers to the U.S. come from through the Visa Waiver Program,” he said, adding he understands the concerns regarding national security and believes advocacy by groups such as USTA, AAHOA and the American Lodging & Hotel Association will help national leaders balance national security with the business of travel.
The USTA calls VWP the nation’s “number-one services export.” The association reports visitors from the countries participating in the program generated $190 billion in economic output for the U.S. economy and supported nearly one million jobs in 2015. Dow credited the program for a trade surplus of $98 billion that year.
Ballotti said, “We know that arrivals through the program are the most secure arrivals into our country because they are more screened, more tested and more secure in terms of identification [of travelers] to qualify to become a visa waiver country.” USTA wants to rename the program the Secure Traveler Partnership as the word “waiver” implies a slackening in vetting standards.
Other topics Ballotti and USTA will address include working in the federal Travel Security Administration in making America’s airports easy and friendly to use. “We spend a lot of time in discussions with the TSA, and we are closely aligned in advocating for the arrival and departure process to be frictionless for everyone.”
Maintaining the Open Skies arrangements is another key issue for USTA. “America has more than 100 Open Skies arrangements in place right now that need to be protected,” Ballotti said, noting the carriers bring more business to the U.S. travel industry.
Airlines from Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airway are expanding their services to gateway airports in the U.S., much to the dismay of U.S. carriers Delta, American Airlines and United, who have formed a coalition to fight the expansion of the Gulf carriers’ routes. The group, which calls itself the Coalition for Fair and Open Skies is lobbying Congress to freeze the service, which would stop expansion and eliminate some recently added routes.
USTA says besides the $4 billion and 50,000 jobs created in the U.S. because of the Open Skies agreement, U.S. air carriers can actually grow their businesses in concert as the Gulf carriers’ passengers use domestic flights to travel throughout the country.
It is all about expanding competition and increasing capacity, Ballotti said. Expanded international service has reduced air fares by more than 30 percent as it has increased inbound tourism. In the U.S., 77 percent of the domestic routes are dominated by a single carrier while 77 percent of the nation’s airports have seen the number of routes reduced and the number of seats steadily decline since 2008, reports the USTA.
Also on the USTA’s 2017 agenda is improving America’s infrastructure, including airports, roads and bridges. During his inaugural speech to the USTA in April, Ballotti said, “A connected America, we believe, is a competitive America. Upgrading our nation’s transportation infrastructure will ease travel barriers between destinations, advance our industry’s progress and drive national economic growth.”
The nation’s airports and their navigation systems need to be modernized, said Ballotti. He’s in good company as President Trump has said his administration will focus on improving America’s infrastructure, including highways and airports.
Today, USTA is hosting is first Secure Travel Summit in New York City. The event at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square is bringing together representatives of all segments of the travel industry to talk about safety and security.