Weekly Wrap – 6-11 May

As he returns Down Under from his visit to US for the IPW Conference, Damian Francis reflects on the past week in travel.

I’M WRITING this from the Maple Leaf Lounge at LAX, Terminal 6, as I wait to start the trek home to Sydney via YVR. Looking out onto the sunny apron of the airport, it’s given me time to reflect on what has been an immense week for US tourism.

IPW, the leading inbound travel trade show for the US, has just ended. It’s a ‘spare no expense’ situation, heavily backed by Brand USA and with almost every US travel brand serious about increasing customers in attendance.

In the middle of the glamour of an opening night featuring Diana Ross and Keanu Reeves’ band Dogstar, the impressive commandeering of the Getty Museum and Universal Studios, and the multiple VIP parties that littered downtown Los Angeles, the US essentially outed itself as having some huge challenges to solve urgently.

Those challenges were outlined succinctly by Geoff Freeman, President and CEO of the US Travel Association. He would know a thing or two about how to grab attention.

Freeman’s LinkedIn profile has him as the previous President and CEO of both the Consumer Brand Association, and the American Gaming Association (that’s casinos, if you’re curious – you have to be pretty confident to hold a position like that, even in the States).

Freeman has become somewhat of a travel spokesperson hero of mine, having the gumption to get up on stage in front of a swathe of international media to plainly say “we have serious problems” and that the US should make entering the country easier for foreigners.
Can you imagine hearing someone say that 10 years ago? How times have changed.

What are the serious problems? Two things that the US can’t control – the strength of the Greenback (don’t I know it now that I’ve been in LA for a week – a coffee for AU$11!) and the inability to fly over important airspace such as Russia.

The latter is significant as it’s the quickest way for a lot of Asia and India to get to the US.

But outside of those two things, there are plenty more that are well within its control, namely the inability for countries with significant amounts of tourists interested in visiting the US to get visas in a timely manner, and the time it takes to pass through customs and immigration to get into the US.

“I checked this morning,” Freeman said on the day of his presentation. “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.”

A day later, the impact of that statement really hit home when outgoing NYC Tourism Board CEO Fred Dixon (moving on to lead Brand USA) took to the IPW stage to announce the launch of the next tourism campaign (Founded in NYC) for the city and reiterate the big events it was going to have in the near future.

Those included part of this year’s T20 World Cup (quite uniquely hosted in tandem with the West Indies), the Copa America soccer (it’s football, right?) tournament, and rounds of the 2026 FIFA World Cup, hosted in tandem with Canada and Mexico.

In other words, major sporting competitions that would be desperate to leverage immense tourism numbers from countries like India, Columbia and Mexico.

Los Angeles, of course, will host the 2028 Olympic Games and will also be hoping to attract big crowds from not only the aforementioned countries, but others that have significant wait times for visas.

When it comes to Australian tourists, it’s not necessarily the visa wait times that stop us, it’s the thought of lining up in a three- or four-hour queue at LAX, SFO, JFK or DFW to get into the country, having done at least a 13-hour flight.

I was lucky enough to stand in a line for less than five minutes at YVR, which has its own customs and immigration, but other journalists I spoke to at IPW that came direct into LAX lined up for almost four hours on Friday 3 March.

To Freeman, the latter issue is particularly unacceptable. “There is nothing more predictable than when a plane is going to land,” he opined.
I can think of some BITRE statistics that may not side with his point, but I get the gist of the argument, and judging by the laughter in the audience, so did the delegates.

Freeman and his team are well aware that in a post-pandemic world, where nations are feverishly battling it out to grab the biggest share of what seems to be an extraordinary recovery for the tourism industry, competitors can smell blood when a country shows a weakness, be it airline capacity, accommodation availability, safety and security, or in this case, visa wait times and customs and immigration challenges.

He went so far as to name the countries that had realised there was an opportunity to grab travellers once intending to head to the US and redirect them to their own land.

While he didn’t mention Australia, Canada (obvious), the UK (unsurprising) and Turkey (a turn up for the books) did get a mention as those aggressively chasing the traveller planning to head to the US but having second thoughts.

The strategies to grab these travellers, according to Freeman, included “allowing those travellers to come in visa free [and] looking at opportunities to keep their shoes on and liquids in their bag when they go through security screening…it’s those types of steps that are going to steal travellers from the United States”.

“It should be our national goal to be nothing short of number one in terms of visitor arrivals, visitor spend and visitor experience,” Freeman said.

“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. Achieving travel growth will require a sustained focus by government and industry to address frictions and improve the process for travellers.”

So what does the US plan to do about it?

Interestingly, Freeman used a phrase that I didn’t expect for someone talking about options the US Government had – “we have to get creative”, he said.

The US Government getting creative. Not something you necessarily think of in terms of national security.

But he pointed to what the country had been able to do in terms of Brazil, cutting down visa wait times from 500 days to 21 days, saying that it’s proven possible and now needs to happen for other countries.

“I am cautiously optimistic that leaders in our country are waking up to the challenge that other countries are putting forward,” he said.

Freeman stressed the need to investigate and potentially invest in new technologies and operations that should be able to bring down not only visa wait times, but the time it takes to get through customs and immigration, from hours to seconds.

A commission has been created to put forward ideas to the government and it is currently travelling around the country on a fact-finding mission.

Last month in Atlanta, TSA officials gathered to investigate technology that could whisk travellers through checkpoints in six seconds or less.
So it sounds like the US means business, which is great.

But in attracting the significant global events that I mentioned at the start of this piece, it has put a serious deadline on itself to get it done. A deadline it surely won’t make, particularly in terms of the T20 Cricket World Cup.

The positive is obvious though. There is someone like Geoff Freeman in the mix, strongly campaigning for what needs to be done for travellers coming into the US to support its economy and experience everything the country has to offer.

In a country as delicately balanced as the US, particularly in the political sense, and with an important election coming up, that is something not to be taken for granted.

Far better to have Freeman pushing tourism than casinos. To use a very American expression, godspeed Geoff Freeman. I look forward to six-minute immigration in LAX soon.

Now turning back home to the latest travel news, it hasn’t been a good week for our aviation industry. We’ve obviously had the shocking news of Air Vanuatu axing all its flights Down Under as it faces liquidation amid major financial strife, at the same time as the future of one of our own carriers, Bonza, remains up in the air.

Qantas faced the repercussions for selling more than 10,000 cancelled flights in 2022, although most would argue that the carrier got off lightly after getting slapped with the meagre $100 million fine – despite the ACCC initially saying it would seek to dish out a record penalty.

In more uplifting news, the travel industry now has a brand-new event to look forward to this year, with our sister publication Travel Daily announcing Travel24, an event that promises to put a new spin on travel conference content. Designed to inspire, share positivity, and deliver useable insights, the unmissable conference will take place on 8 August in Sydney.

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