The U.S.’s travel industry’s prospects to compete globally over the long-term looks dim.
Long wait times for visas and an outdated air infrastructure hobble the U.S.’s ability to attract travelers, said executives at the Skift Global Forum.
Global destinations like New York City are facing serious competition from destinations like Saudi Arabia that have been upgrading their tourist infrastructure and spending more on tourism promotion, said NYC Tourism+Conventions CEO and President Fred Dixon.
“As countries roll out more welcoming policies, easier access, these are going to be challenges to markets like New York that have long been successful and dominant in this space,” said Dixon.
Consider Waiving Visa Requirements
This year, long visa wait times in China, India, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and other top markets will cost the U.S. $12 billion in traveler spending, said U.S. Travel Association CEO and President Geoff Freeman. Visa wait times for the U.S.’s top inbound markets are over 400 days on average.
In China, the U.S. was the third most searched destination for mid-autumn, but it came in 9th place in terms of total visa applications, according to Trip.com Group data shared by Dixon.
Visa wait times in China have been inching up to 200 days, said Freeman. That problem will only compound next year when 10 million Chinese citizens have to renew their visa next year.
“This is anything but a welcoming environment,” said Freeman. “If you are a leisure traveler or a business traveler, you’re likely to say, I’ll go somewhere else.”
There’s been improvement in visa wait times in some inbound markets. Wait times in Brazil have been reduced by 50%, but it’s still stuck at 200 days, said Freeman. “It is still, I think from a U.S. standpoint, embarrassing if we want to be competitive,” he said.
“In markets like Brazil and Mexico and Colombia, we need to do a better job of making sure that they can access the United States,” said Dixon. “As a destination, we need to clear these pipes.”
Other countries have adopted visa-free policies to take the U.S.’s share of international travel, said Freeman. Canada waived its visa requirement for 11 countries and the UK has expanded visa-free travel to 100 countries this year. Meanwhile, the U.S. currently only has visa-free travel for 42 countries.
Upgrade Airports to Revive Business Travel
About 23% of all U.S. flights are delayed or canceled and airports make air travel a “hassle,” said Freeman.
“The experience getting through many of the airports, getting through TSA, where lines are getting longer is anything but comfortable,” said Freeman. While leisure travelers are more willing to put up with the discomfort, business travelers won’t because they can use virtual alternatives like Zoom to avoid trips.
La Guardia Airport showed what’s possible with more investment. “The exception is places like LaGuardia. Now, who would have said that 10 years ago,” said Freeman.
In 2022, La Guardia completed a six-year $8 billion reconstruction, making it the first new airport built in 25 years. New York State and airlines financed the reconstruction. The project was kicked off due to then Vice-President Joe Biden’s comment in 2014 that the airport was “some third-world country,” Dixon noted.
“It now can easily accommodate 17 million travelers a year, just Terminal B alone,” said Dixon. “We are providing a much better experience and it leans towards the business traveler.”
John F. Kennedy International Airport is now undergoing a $17 billion reconstruction.