Coronavirus-hit travel industry will return, let's get to work now to save workers

We need to start planning now for returning to a world where people have confidence and are able to travel again

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As we begin to reopen the economy, one industry needs particular focus -- travel and tourism. We need to start planning now for returning to a world where people have confidence and are able to travel again -- and that also means across international borders.

The desire to travel is a human instinct that involves more than creating enjoyable memories; it also supports 1 in 10 or 330 million jobs worldwide according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.

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A significant portion of that economic activity is produced through cross-border tourism, not domestic or local travel. While it is logical that local travel will be the first to return to some normalcy in the months ahead, our industry should already be working with governments to create an action plan for how international travel resumes and recovers.

I can speak first hand to the positive impact that international travel has to the United States. In 2019, our company brought 500,000 travelers from overseas. The average international tourist couple spent over ten thousand dollars during their visit – shopping in our malls, dining out, staying in hotels, renting cars, and buying tickets to theatres and attractions.

We estimate our travelers generated some $3 billion in economic activity. When overseas travelers visit America, they don’t just move money from one state to another; they bring new money into our country, reducing our deficit with trading partners.

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After 9/11, I was part of an industry group advising the Bush administration on recovery. I told then-Secretary of Commerce Don Evans that the key to quick recovery has always been to overcome fear.

People have short memories and if the price and product are right, they will pack and go.

Back then, the government moved quickly to convince travelers that air travel was safe while the industry worked hard to make sure the prices and products were right. One ultimate product of our collaboration was Brand USA, a model public-private partnership to promote American commerce.

Our industry should already be working with governments to create an action plan for how international travel resumes and recovers. 

Not dissimilar to the post-9/11 recovery, the recovery from coronavirus will require additional screening measures, this time for controlling the spread of the virus. A key aspect of the recovery from 9/11 was how the federal government led the way in building a global screening regime that both secured and reassured passengers that air travel was safe.

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We need that same kind of coordination to start today for screening measures to control this virus.

There are positive signs that the death toll of coronavirus is beginning to ebb, with new cases and mortality stabilizing or even declining, a trend that we all pray will continue.

Now is the time to develop a plan for getting back to business, putting solutions in place that allow our economy to begin getting back on track.

First, we have to get aid to travel companies and workers that have been decimated. Many travel companies will benefit from the payroll protection loans that were part of the $2.2 trillion relief package signed by President Trump. However, many have concerns that funds will be delayed or run out before companies get the aid.

More aid must be allocated to small businesses specifically impacted by governmental actions curbing the virus’ spread. Additional legislation being considered by Congress should include grants to such companies that run the risk of going out of business.  Seasonal workers who are likely to take a hit early in the summer should be supported directly rather than incentivized to go on unemployment.

Second, we need realistic and pragmatic mechanisms to either validate immunity or test travelers who wish to come to the United States. Rapid tests at the points of departure and arrival in America would help allay much fear and risk related to international travel.

The Electronic System for Travel Authorization administered by the Department of Homeland Security should be remobilized to validate an individual’s ability to travel if they have recently tested negative or have developed immunity.

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Agencies like Customs and Border Protection, the Transportation Security Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control will require additional funding to ramp up these efforts quickly and will need to collaborate closely and expeditiously with our industry in order to be successful.

Third, we need to come together as an industry to find pragmatic and effective solutions to mitigate the ongoing coronavirus risk. While the government’s role is critical in this crisis, it will ultimately be up to us to protect our workers and customers. Leaders within our industry need to truly lead the way in developing best practices for improved health and hygiene at hotels, restaurants, parks, and other tourist and travel attractions.

All of these steps need to be effective but they must also reassure. By starting work now, we can make the coming summer a strong recovery period for our workers, our small businesses, America and the world.

Noel Irwin Hentschel is the CEO of AmericanTours International, which she co-founded in 1977. She serves on the board of Brand USA and has advised seven U.S. Secretaries of Commerce on travel and tourism.

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