U.S. Chamber officials quietly lobby Trump administration on declining U.S. inbound travel

by Wesley Brown ([email protected]) 580 views 

As President Donald Trump continues to push for more information on visa applicants entering the country, a U.S. Chamber of Commerce-sponsored coalition is quietly lobbying the administration and Congress to ease back those restrictions they say are causing the nation’s  travel industry to lose billions of dollars annually.

Since forming the “Visit U.S.” coalition in late 2017, the U.S. Chamber and many of the nation’s top industry trade groups began efforts to carefully craft a “Trump-friendly” response to get administration officials to change course on visa requirements for international visitors and travel bans from certain countries to the U.S.

In February, the business and travel industry group first rolled out a targeted policy agenda aimed at reversing the years-long decline in inbound international travelers to the U.S., borrowing from President Trump’s “Make America Great Again” message to encourage global visitors to continue making the U.S. the world’s top leisure and business destination.

“Winning back international visitors is the key to growing our economy and unlocking billions of dollars and thousands more American jobs,” said coalition spokesman Amos Snead. “Working with the administration to streamline travel and screening processes and embrace travel as a national priority, we can attract more visitors to the United States and give the world a unique understanding of what makes America great.”

Since then, the U.S. Chamber-sponsored group has developed a new advocacy website, created a Twitter page and pushed out several promotional videos that encourage the Trump administration to partner with the travel industry to reverse the decline in U.S. competitiveness for international travel.

In Arkansas, Montine McNulty of the Arkansas Hospitality Association, said the national trend of fewer international travelers is also being felt in Arkansas. The AHA executive director said there are still pockets of brisk inbound foreign travel to parts of the Natural State, notably Northwest Arkansas.

“I know that there are parts of Arkansas that are still seeing travelers from other countries, and even a greater number,” said McNulty. “I know that Northwest Arkansas, anecdotally, they’ve told me they are seeing a lot of (travelers), but I think that is kind of unusual.”

Nationally, McNulty said the latest numbers she has seen from a top industry trade group is that the U.S. has lost 40,000 jobs and “billions of dollars” in annual revenues due to concerns over the Trump administration’s immigration and trade policies.

According to data prepared for Visit U.S. by the U.S. Travel Association, global travel volume increased 7.9% from 2015 to 2017, but the U.S. slice of that pie fell from 13.6% to 11.9% in the same period — the first drop after more than a decade of consistent growth.

If the U.S. had maintained its 2015 market share, the nation’s economy would have gained 7.4 million additional international visitors, $32.2 billion in additional spending 100,000 additional jobs, states the coalition that includes the U.S. Chamber, American Gaming Association, the American Hotel & Lodging Association, the National Restaurant Association, National Retail Federation, U.S. Travel Association and several other industry groups.

“America is the best country in the world to visit, but we’re losing the competition for international travelers and the dollars they spend when they come here,” said U.S. Travel Association President and CEO Roger Dow, whose organization is a founding member of Visit U.S. “The Visit U.S. Coalition is founded on the principle that we can have strong security but at the same time welcome robust numbers of international business and leisure travelers. We can do both.”

The group intensified its marketing efforts in the spring after the Trump administration proposed a new rule that international visitors submit five years worth of data related to applicants’ social media accounts, telephone numbers, email addresses, and travel histories. The rule would have affected nearly 15 million travelers last year, the group said.

“Imposing new, burdensome requirements on all potential visa applicants will significantly discourage international travel to the U.S. and negatively impact our nation’s ability to generate economic growth and create jobs for Americans,” said Sneed. “The Visit U.S. Coalition is committed to ensuring that policy changes do not further erode America’s market share of international travelers.  We look forward to working with the State Department to ensure that policies further both our national security and U.S. economic interests.”

But the group’s efforts received a setback in late June when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld President Trump’s travel ban from several Muslim countries. The coalition then lobbied Congress for legislation to update visa processing for international travelers and improve coordination between the State and Homeland Security departments.

On July 26, the so-called Jobs Originating through Launching Travel, or JOLT Act was introduced by U.S. Reps. Tom Rice, R-S.C., and Mike Quigley, D-Ill., to streamline U.S. visa programs to promote international travel to the U.S. This updated version of a similar 2015 measure has been referred to committee but has not yet been taken up by Congress.

Since April, the National Travel and Tourism Office (NTTO) has suspended data releases on overseas arrivals to the U.S. pending resolution of “underlying technical issues with a significant number of records” received from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). During this process, NTTO said it detected a meaningful and increasing number of non-U.S. citizens traveling on visas to the U.S. being categorized as U.S. residents. Those travelers were removed from the visitor count of overseas travelers arriving into the U.S., resulting in a probable undercount for 2017.

The Bureau of Economic Analysis uses this data when calculating the balance of trade, as expenditures by these visitors are counted as exports for the United States. In 2016, travel and tourism accounted for 11% of all U.S. exports and 33% of all services exports. The U.S. realized an $83.9 billion balance of trade surplus for travel and tourism in 2016.

“NTTO is working with CBP and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to resolve these issues,” said NTTO spokesman Tim Truman. “(We) will resume publication of these data as soon as possible.”