U.S. travel industry falling behind in global tourism race

The United States tourism sector is the largest in the world, but new research from the World Travel & Tourism Council shows there’s more the industry can do to capture share.

Travel and tourism generated $1.5 trillion for the U.S. economy last year—more than any other country in the world, the research shows. Further, U.S. tourism ranks No. 1 in the world for gross-domestic-product contribution and visitor exports. However, the data shows that U.S. tourism grew 2.3 percent in 2017. That compares to 9.8-percent growth for China, 7 percent in Spain, 6.2 percent for the United Kingdom and 5.5 percent in Canada.

“WTTC’s Economic Impact Report reveals that global travelers are choosing to visit other or new destinations rather than the U.S., or places closer to home,” Helen Marano, executive vice president for WTTC, told Hotel Management.

Related Story: Continued growth still in the forecast for U.S. hotel industry in 2018

She said that while the international tourism market is growing at its fastest pace since 2010, preliminary data suggests that the U.S. welcomed up to 4 percent fewer visitors in 2017 than 2016. Several issues are at play, and Marano said it would be a mistake to pin it on any one reason.

“For starters, the dollar has performed particularly well over the past few years, making it more expensive for international visitors to afford lengthy stays in the U.S. We have also seen a rise in competition for the key markets of the traditional international visitors to the U.S. from other regions like the Mediterranean and Southeast Asia and China,” she said.

What the U.S. Could Do Better

First and foremost, Marano said the message the U.S. needs to send is that it is open for business.

“The diversity and friendliness of the American people are an integral asset for any international visitor. Heralding this value with the great adventuresome and cultural spirit of the country, as Brand USA is doing, is the right path to amplify and market,” she said.

The future of the U.S. as a global leader will be in jeopardy if the current trend of not growing its share of the tourism market holds steady, Marano said.

“This is not the first time U.S. tourism has experienced a slowdown, and it is unlikely to be the last,” she added. “The U.S. has the tools and the talent to reverse this situation, particularly with the strength of collaboration that exists with both the industry and the key government agencies.”

Related Story: CBRE: U.S. supply growth to peak in 2018

Even more crucial for potential global visitors is to minimize the “hassle factor” while tightening security, Marano said. 

“More extensive use of biometrics is the key to integrating both for a more secure and seamless travel journey. The U.S.’ Visa Waiver program is being replicated in other countries, so it should be protected at home,” she said. “And the U.S. Global Entry scheme is one of the best in the world; its expansion would encourage visitors, especially high-spending business and frequent travelers.”

Investment in infrastructure is also key, she noted. Expanding airport and runway capacity is only one aspect needed to meet the forecasted global demand of 1.8 billion visitors over the next decade. The U.S. also needs to focus on receipts or expenditures of international visitors versus the total number of visitors.

“The U.S. already leads in this ranking. More importantly, the dollars deliver the jobs and growth for all segments of the sector,” Marano said.

When asked why it’s so important for the U.S. hotel industry to take note of the recent research, Marano said the economic impact of global travel often reaches further than is realized.

“In the U.S., the industry plays a significant economic role that must be bolstered and protected,” she said. “Travel and tourism delivers jobs. That is a key priority of the current administration and thus all the more reason for making this sector a national priority for investment and policy deliberations that positively impact the growth of both international and domestic travel.”

Related Story: Do U.S. hotel stock trends point to larger industry concerns?