US must step up

Damian Francis reports from the United States' largest inbound travel industry trade show, taking place this week in LA.

“We have serious problems,” was the admission at the beginning of the US Travel Associations IPW session presented by President and CEO Geoff Freeman.

In front of a packed audience of international journalists, Freeman suggested the US was facing a number of headwinds but that there were opportunities to overcome these.

“There’s not a whole lot we can do about the strength of our dollar, not a whole lot we can do about limitations of flying over Russian airspace right now – it’s a major inhibitor in bringing Asian travellers to the United States,” he said.

“But there’s a lot we can do about issues in our control like visa wait times, customs efficiencies, and the challenges travellers have when trying to make a connection and having to rescreen their bags when coming to the United States.”

Freeman noted that while previously there was a US$12 billion travel trade surplus, at the end of last year there was a $50 billion travel trade deficit.

It comes at a time where the US is gearing up to host a raft of major events including the FIFA World Cup in 2026 and the summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles in 2028.

“I checked this morning, if you’re in Columbia and want to come to the United States, the wait times for interviews are over 600 days…if you’re in Mexico the wait times are over 800 days…if you’re in India, the wait times are reduced, 150-200 days,” Freeman lamented.

But he pointed out that for Brazil, wait times had been reduced from 500 days to 21 days, proving that it could be done when the State Department “gets creative”.

“We have challenged the State Department to set a goal of processing all visas in 30 days or less at any consulate around the world,” Freeman exclaimed.

He also took aim at the customs side, suggesting too many travellers, like those from Australia and New Zealand, were spending more than two hours to get into the US after spending 10-14 hours on a flight.

“There is nothing more predicatable than when planes are going to land,” he said. “There are solutions, these are problems we are setting out to solve.

“We know that other countries around the world realise you have to make significant changes and that it’s a competitive environment to attract travellers, and they’re doing things, whether it is Canada, the UK, Turkey or others – they are putting in place steps to attract travellers away from the United States, they are looking at countries that have long (US) visa wait times, and they are allowing them in visa free.”

“It’s those steps that will steal travellers from the United States.”

Freeman noted that to address this, a commission was created earlier this year on seamless and secure travel to put forward the ideas that the US Government could adopt to make the US more competitive and get “its share of travellers”, and that the commission was travelling around the country right now on a discovery mission.

He also noted that with TSA leaders, new technology is being explored that could speed travellers through the TSA check point in six seconds or less.

“I am cautiously optimistic that leaders in our country are waking up to the challenge that other countries are putting forward, the competitiveness of the environment, and the need for the US to do what it needs to do to attract travellers,” Freeman said.

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