Tourism Industry Leaders Urge Congress to Reopen Travel

In a new travel subcommittee’s first hearing, senators and industry leaders appeared ready to work with each other to revitalize tourism and travel in the U.S.

Sun shines on the U.S. Capitol dome, March 2, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

WASHINGTON (CN) — At its worst point last year, unemployment in the travel and tourism industry reached over 50%. Travel spending plummeted $500 billion, costing the U.S. economy $1.1 trillion, 110,000 restaurants closed permanently and half of all hotel rooms in the country are projected to remain empty this year. 

The sector is slowly recovering, but top industry officials are saying that it’s not fast enough: At its current pace, the travel and tourism economy won’t fully recover until 2025. 

In a Senate Trade and Export Promotion Subcommittee hearing Tuesday afternoon, leaders representing travel, restaurants, lodging and entertainment entities urged Congress to do whatever is necessary to speed up recovery. 

“We are desperate and anything that you all can do in Congress to help us relieve this burden,” Carol Dover, CEO of Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association told the subcommittee. 

Members of the newly formed subcommittee — created with the purpose of revitalizing America’s travel and tourism industry — appeared receptive and willing to work with the industry leaders during an amicable meeting, which spelled out challenges and recommendations from the industry. 

“Our industry is central to the U.S. economy, and it is critical to the recovery of the U.S. economy,” Steve Hill, CEO of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority said. “We need to get to the point where socially distancing isn’t necessary. Like many destinations, Las Vegas doesn’t work well without a crowd. We are optimistic that we are on the cusp of that.”

Industry leaders spoke of the necessity of vaccines, relief bills like the Hospitality and Commerce Jobs Recovery Act — which would increase travel demand from low and middle income families by giving tax credits for travel — and messaging that lets people know that it’s safe to go back out and travel. 

They also pushed to open borders to international travel, as soon as it is safe to do so. 

“We need to have clarity from the federal government,” said Tori Emerson Barnes, the executive vice president of public affairs and policy for the U.S. Travel Association. “We should be a leader in this regard. We are the United States of America and we want to be able to welcome international travelers back to the U.S.” 

The U.S. Travel Association has urged the Biden administration to develop a data-driven, risk-based roadmap and a timeline by May to reopen international travel by July. 

“We have the right protections in place to reopen, but we don’t have clear public health benchmarks or a definitive timeline to return to open our borders,” said Barnes.

Senators on the committee agreed. 

“We must get Americans and the world traveling again,” said Democratic Senator Jacky Rosen of Nevada, chair of the subcommittee. “With more Americans getting vaccinated and the CDC giving the green light for safe travel, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Republican Senator Rick Scott of Florida, the ranking member of the subcommittee, says he’s especially focused on Puerto Rico to make sure it gets the aid it needs to recover from Hurricane Maria, an earthquake and now Covid-19. 

“As our nation works to recover from the coronavirus and get our economy back on track, I’m going to be doing everything with Senator Rosen to support the tourism industry in Florida and around the country,” Scott said.

The Florida senator has worked to introduce several bills to help the tourism economy, including a bill which directs the TSA to conduct a feasibility study on K-9 units detecting Covid-19, another which enables a temperature check pilot program at airports, and one he introduced Tuesday aimed at providing aid to the cruise industry.

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