Though international travel to the United States was up 15 percent in the first two months of 2010 over the same period in 2009, it will take a lot more positive news to reverse a 10-year downward trend, characterized as the “lost decade” by Roger Dow, president and chief executive officer at the U.S. Travel Association, who spoke at the Exhibition and Convention Executives Forum on June 2 in Washington, D.C.
There has been a global “gold rush” of international travel since 2000, said Dow, with long-haul trips up 39 percent worldwide. However, the data on travelers coming to the U.S. runs counter to the trend, down 9 percent since 2000. If the U.S. had kept pace with the rest of the world, it would have had an estimated 68 million more visitors and $508 billion in spending, Dow said.
Dow shared the stage with Helen Marano, director at the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Office of Travel and Tourism, at a session on business travel trends. According to Marano’s numbers, a little more than 5 million people traveled to the United States for business or meetings in 2009. Of those, about 1 million came to attend conventions or conferences, while the rest were on business trips. Both business travel and meetings travel were down about 20 percent in 2009 from 2008.
Many in the audience confirmed the trend. Asian and European travelers especially have been pulling back on attending U.S. meetings because of difficulties of the inbound travel process, they said. And because process is generally easier, more international conventions are going to Canadian destinations—like Montréal and Toronto—when they meet in North America.
Furthermore, in an ECEF Pulse survey of 221 event organizers released at the Forum, respondents said getting international attendees and exhibitors to U.S.-based events is the biggest challenge facing the exhibition industry, beating out concerns over the economic recession, exhibitors downsizing booths, private events, and other issues.
Marano reported to the ECEF audience on the Obama administration’s National Export Initiative, which has the goal of doubling the amount of exports in five years. (Any U.S. goods and services purchased by foreign travelers are considered “exports.”) She said that U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, who she works for, recognizes the impact of travel on the economy and understands the opportunities to increase exports through travel and tourism.
Dow suggested three ways to increase the number of travelers coming to the U.S.—decrease visa wait times, make airports more welcoming, and promote America overseas via the Travel Promotion Act.
The long visa wait time for Chinese visitors in particular was a sore subject among the 200 or so attendees at ECEF. The visa wait time for Beijing is about 64 days on average, according to the Office of Travel and Tourism, but several attendees said it takes much longer. One audience member said it took 99 days for his Chinese exhibitors to get their visas and many couldn’t come to the meeting. “It’s damaging our business,” he said.
“China is one of the biggest opportunities we have, and one of the biggest challenges,” said Dow. “We have to address wait times.” One idea is to use videoconferencing to conduct the visa interviews.