It’s National Travel and Tourism Week (May 2–8). Thankfully, that means something very different this year than it did in 2020.
All week, the travel industry has conducted engagements all over the country to celebrate the importance of travel to both the U.S. economy and American life.
But this time last year was a moment of profound difficulty both for people who love to travel and for the millions of Americans whose livelihoods depend on it. Travel of any kind had come to a dead halt in mid-March. Prior to that moment, 1 in 10 Americans had a job supported by travel. By May, half of those jobs were gone—and travel-supported employment would account for a staggering 65 percent of all U.S. jobs lost last year. COVID’s economic impact on the travel industry was 10 times worse than 9/11.
Any and every one of us can help get those jobs back by doing what comes natural to most of us: book a trip—to finally get away and see someplace new, to see friends and loved ones, or simply to relax and recuperate after an exceptionally tough year. For many, the right moment is either right now or just around the corner.
On April 2, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) formally issued updated guidance stating vaccinated Americans can safely travel. The travel industry had long been pressing for such an action, based on an abundance of science indicating that travel—even travel by commercial plane—was already generally low-risk with appropriate health safeguards in place, such as the wearing of masks.
This past Friday, the White House announced that 55 percent of American adults have received at least one dose of the vaccine, and 40 percent are now fully vaccinated.
That means approximately 100 million more Americans are able to safely travel now than was the case at this time a year ago.
The success of the U.S. vaccination rollout is a celebratory achievement, and CDC’s formal blessing for vaccinated people to travel is a boon both for a key feature of American life and to a sector of the U.S. economy that has absorbed relentless blows for well over a year. Still, there remain some inconsistencies in U.S. policies around travel that are due for rectification. Case in point: Despite the CDC’s explicit position that even international travel is OK if you’re vaccinated, it supported the State Department’s recent issuance of “do not travel” advisories for more than 80 percent of the countries in the world. That “Level 4” categorization applies even to countries, such as the U.K. and Denmark, with vaccination records that are similar or superior to the U.S.
COVID’s economic impact on the travel industry was 10 times worse than 9/11.
This policy stands in stark contrast to the reopening efforts going on in other parts of the world. The head of the European Commission, notably, last week announced a big move toward relaxing travel restrictions both within Europe and from other countries with strong records of managing the pandemic—and she explicitly included the U.S. among the latter. While the U.S. is showing its leadership in so many areas of managing the pandemic, it has catching up to do when it comes to reopening international travel.
Another policy area that is due for an update is guidance that affects business travel—which accounted for more than 60 percent of all airline revenues prepandemic, but plummeted more than 70 percent last year. State and municipal governments set their own caps on how many people may meet together, and those numbers vary wildly nationwide, ranging from under 10 to several hundred—and soon to be 5,000 in California. The CDC itself declines to weigh in on what is permissible, or even what number of capacity level constitutes a “small gathering” or a “large gathering.” Clarity and consistency on this front are highly desirable for restarting the conventions and professional meetings industry that is the key driver of business travel.
While the travel industry has consistently advocated for reopening travel as soon as it is possible to safely do so, we have also been vocal proponents of rigorous health and safety measures throughout the pandemic. We were early adopters of industrywide guidance to protect our patrons and workers. We have strongly urged every eligible American to receive a vaccine as soon as it is available to them. And we continue to support the wearing of masks in the travel environment, even as states have relaxed mandates and the CDC has relaxed its own mask guidance.
But unlike this time last year, a full and sustained travel reopening looks to be within our grasp. Even though there’s more to be done, it is truly a moment to be celebrated—hopefully, by hitting the road.
Tori Emerson Barnes is executive vice president for public affairs and policy at the U.S. Travel Association.