It is a moment that so many have been waiting for. When the U.S. closed its borders to the United Kingdom, Ireland, the 26 Schengen Area countries, South Africa, Iran, Brazil, India, and China at the onset of the pandemic, no one could have possibly guessed that restrictions would be in place for 19 months. That is almost two years where families and friends were separated, explorers were stuck, and our country was isolated from the global community as we fought to contain the spread of the virus.
Thankfully, today’s action is a major step forward in reuniting the world.
U.S. Travel Association, the Washington, D.C.–based organization that represents all sectors of the U.S. travel industry, pressed for many months for a safe reopening of our borders, both by land and air. Numerous studies have scientifically proven the safety of air travel, and other countries with high vaccination rates advanced plans earlier this year to safely reopen their borders to vaccinated individuals and rebuild their economies through travel.
The countries that were restricted from traveling to the U.S. made up just 17 percent of all countries worldwide, but these inbound markets accounted for a disproportionate 53 percent of all overseas visitors to the U.S. in 2019. Seven out of 10 of the biggest markets for U.S. inbound travel in 2019—U.K., China, Brazil, Germany, France, India, and Italy—were prohibited from nonessential travel last year. These few countries represent an outsize component of the international inbound travel segment and are vital to the U.S. travel industry—and by extension, the broader U.S. economy.
In 2019, U.S. travel was the third-largest export—behind only capital goods and industrial supplies—generating a staggering $239 billion in income for the U.S. economy and directly supporting 1.2 million American jobs. Since the start of the pandemic last year, declines in international visitation are estimated to have resulted in nearly $300 billion in lost export income and a loss of more than a million American jobs.
Our industry has its eyes on regaining what was lost and rebuilding this crucial travel sector. U.S. Travel economists estimate that it will take until 2024 to restore international inbound travel to 2019 levels, and much work remains to get to that point. Specifically, U.S. Travel is calling on officials to fully reopen and restart visitor visa processing operations, as the average wait times for a visitor visa appointment in non-Visa Waiver Program countries exceed 14 months. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) operations must also be resourced to adequately handle the influx of international visitors.
U.S. Travel economists estimate that it will take until 2024 to restore international inbound travel to 2019 levels, and much work remains to get to that point.
Other smart and effective policies—such as providing emergency funding for Brand USA, the United States’ destination marketing organization—can help shorten the timeline for recovery.
While we acknowledge the work ahead of us, we must also recognize the cultural significance of this moment. Travel is part of the fabric of our nation. Before the pandemic, we welcomed nearly 80 million international visitors a year. The U.S. is home to tens of millions of immigrants whose families are spread out across the world. Travel connects Americans to families, friends, and other cultures. Simply said, travel is essential to who we are.
We have come so far in our fight against the pandemic. It was an unparalleled feat of science that brought the world safe and effective COVID vaccines so quickly. People all across the United States and the world made enormous sacrifices to protect themselves and their communities. Now, we can take the first steps to reunite the world and move into a new phase in our recovery.
There is still a lot of work ahead of us, but November 8 is a day to recognize all that we have accomplished.
Tori Emerson Barnes is Executive Vice President of Public Affairs and Policy at U.S. Travel Association in Washington, D.C.