U.S. Travel Association president calls on feds to aid in tourism recovery efforts

Geoff Freeman, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, recently took the stage at a packed morning press conference at IPW 2024 to tell journalists that more regulatory work was needed to solve barriers to visitor growth.

He also stressed the need for more participation by the federal government to strengthen the U.S. inbound travel industry. In attendance at IPW 2024 was Baxter Media’s Ted Davis. 

“It should be our national goal to be nothing short of number one in terms of visitor arrivals, visitor spend and visitor experience,” said Freeman. “But our ambitions are constrained by excessively long wait times for visitor visas, often-lengthy waits at customs and an air traffic control system that is challenged to meet demand.”

Freeman explored some of those problems in more detail as part of his presentation, saying for example that, “There’s a lot we can do on issues like visa wait times, efficiencies in customs, and the challenges travellers have with trying to make a connection and needing to re-screen their bags when coming to the United States.” 

Challenges ahead

He said that the State Department should be able to “use their ingenuity to get creative, and assign resources in the right places. This problem can be solved, but It needs to be solved now. We have challenged the administration to set a goal of 30 days or less to process all visas at any consulate around the world.”

Freeman noted that “there’s not a whole lot we can do about the strength of our dollar. And there’s not a lot we can do about the limitations of flying over Russian air space right now, which is a major inhibitor for bringing Asian travellers to the United States.” 

But he said that “achieving travel growth will require a sustained focus by government and industry to address frictions and improve the process for travellers.” 

Symbolic of these needs is the fact that the travel industry recovery from the Covid crisis has slowed after the rush of “revenge travel” in 2023. Current numbers indicate that total inbound visitations to the U.S. remained at just 84 per cent of 2019 levels, as of the end of 2023. “As such, a lot of work remains ahead to build arrivals and increase market share,” said Freeman.

Opportunity awaits

The association president pointed to a decade of opportunity ahead as the U.S. prepares to welcome millions of new travellers to major events in destinations across the nation.

These include the 400th anniversary of the founding of New York City in 2024, the FIFA World Cup soccer tournament in 2026, the 250th anniversary of America’s declaration of independence in 2026, the 100th anniversary of the famous Route 66 in 2026, and the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles in 2028.

Freeman also noted that the strong attendance at IPW 2024 indicated a healthy confidence in the U.S. travel industry, telling journalists that “IPW is back.” 

He cited attendance this year of about 5,700 attendees from nearly 70 countries. This week, IPW is convening U.S. travel suppliers with international tour operators and buyers for 100,000 scheduled business appointments over three days. This year’s IPW has seen a 20 per cent increase in attendance over the 2023 event, which was held in San Antonio, TX.