Is the government failing travel?

As the U.S. loses market share to its competitors, members of the travel industry call out Washington’s inaction and underinvestment in everything from airport technology to the office of the top tourism official.

Illustration by Jenn Martins

Is the

government failing travel?

As the U.S. loses market share to its competitors, members of the travel industry call out Washington’s inaction and underinvestment in everything from airport technology to the office of the top tourism official.

By Johanna Jainchill
January 22, 2024

Illustration by Jenn Martins

Illustration by Jenn Martins

As 2023 came to a close, many issues important to the travel industry remained stubbornly open.

Congress has not been able to agree on the reauthorization of the FAA, which provides funding for the aviation system and has been kept afloat with short-term extensions since May. 

The much-hyped assistant secretary of tourism role, approved in late 2022 as the highest tourism office in history, not only remains unfunded and unfilled, but nobody has been nominated for it. 

The threat of a government shutdown, which the U.S. Travel Association estimates would cost the travel economy as much as $140 million a day, remains on the horizon. 

This is in addition to ongoing issues that the industry says are preventing a full comeback of travel, such as average visa wait times of more than 400 days in some key U.S. visitor markets; delays of six to eight weeks for Americans needing a new passport; up to 11 month waits for a Global Entry appointment; and while traveling, long lines at customs and security and flights delays and cancellations often due to air traffic control shortfalls. 

It all adds up to what U.S. Travel CEO Geoff Freeman says is “the federal government failing U.S. travelers.”

Freeman started making this assertion loudly and often this fall, a little over one year into his tenure at U.S. Travel. Perhaps most frustrating to Freeman is his equally adamant assertion that these problems are very solvable if the Biden administration prioritizes them. 

“This is a result of years of federal underinvestment in travel,” Freeman told reporters in October. “It’s left us with a system that is understaffed and underfunded.”

Geoff Freeman, U.S. Travel
‘Years of federal underinvestment in travel have left us with a system that is understaffed and underfunded.’
Geoff Freeman, U.S. Travel

Much of Freeman’s ire on this front is directed toward flying. According to U.S. Travel, there are 1,200 fewer air traffic controllers than a decade ago; Customs and Border Protection is 1,700 officers short; and the TSA faces a roughly 20% workforce attrition rate in recent years, significantly higher than in other areas of government.

The flying experience has gotten so bad that a U.S. Travel and Ipsos survey released this fall concluded that 60% of all air travelers find the process worse or the same as going to a department of motor vehicles office.

What worries Freeman and other members of the industry the most is the data showing that travelers are not only frustrated, but traveling less because of it. The Ipsos survey indicated that half of all air travelers said they would travel more in the next six months if it were less of a hassle, and 16% said that due to a recent negative experience, they plan to travel less in the future. 

And although satisfaction climbs significantly among travelers enrolled in trusted traveler programs such as Global Entry and TSA PreCheck, the wait times to get into those programs often deter people from joining. 

“These are things that government has a direct hand in, and in some cases, is responsible for,” Freeman said. 


How competitive is the U.S. for global travelers?

Total inbound global market share. #1: U.A.E; #2: Greece; #3: U.K.; #4: Mexico; #5: Turkey; #6: U.S.; #7: Spain; #8: France.
Countries with most visa waivers. #1: South Africa; #2: U.K; #3: France, Germany and Italy; #7: Turkey; #8: Mexico; #9: Brazil; #10: Thailand; #11: Canada; #12: U.S.A.; #13: U.A.E.; #14: Singapore; #15: Greece. Airports with biometric tech. #1: Thailand; #2: China #3: Canada; #4: South Africa; #5: U.K.; #6: U.A.E; #7: Australia; #8: Singapore; #9: Germany; #10: U.S.A.; #11: France; #12: Brazil; #13: Spain; #14: Italy; #15: Mexico.

International competition

If, as Freeman and others contend, the U.S. is in many ways neglecting its obligations to travelers, international competitors are having little trouble winning them over. 

The U.S. State Department blames surging demand for the delays to obtain inbound visas from markets including India, Mexico and Colombia, and it has pledged this fall to focus on getting those wait times down. But members of the U.S. travel industry, specifically in markets where the number of lucrative international visitors hasn’t rebounded to prepandemic levels, worry about the demand being left on the table.

Freeman talked about government failures at Los Angeles Tourism’s annual Market Outlook Forum in September, where both Adam Burke, CEO of Los Angeles Tourism, and Caroline Beteta, CEO of Visit California, lamented the slow return of overseas visitors. 

“The reality is, our success is tied to visa processing as well as airport and airline capacity issues,” Beteta said. “People have a huge desire for the American experience and the California Dream, but if it’s not accessible, they’re going to go somewhere else.”

Caroline Beteta, Visit California
‘Our success is tied to visa processing as well as airport and airline capacity issues. People have a huge desire for the American experience, but if it’s not accessible, they’re going to go somewhere else.’
Caroline Beteta, Visit California

Beteta added that “even our respective federal officials have to agree that they can do better,” citing the opportunities presented by automation and AI to expedite airport processing. 

Washington has also seen a slow recovery of international visitors. 

“People have so many choices of where to travel,” said Elliott Ferguson, CEO of Destination DC. When visitors choose somewhere else, the city’s economy is especially hurt because “the bottom line is that international travelers to D.C. stay longer and spend more.”

Elliott Ferguson, Destination DC
‘People have so many choices of where to travel. The bottom line is that international travelers to D.C. stay longer and spend more.’
Elliott Ferguson, Destination DC

And that choice of where to go may tilt toward countries where it’s easier to get a visa. According to Freeman, Canada recently gave visa-free status to 13 countries, all of which must have visas to visit the U.S. There are more than 100 countries whose nationals can go to the U.K. visa-free, while only nationals of 42 countries can visit the U.S. with no visa.

“The U.S. always needs to be aware that there is a lot of competition out there,” said Julia Simpson, CEO of the World Travel & Tourism Council. “I know a lot of Chinese, for example, really want to come back to the U.S. China represents 15% of all global spend on travel and tourism. And it’s very, very hard for the Chinese to get visas to visit the U.S. It’s not the fundamentals, it’s more just getting some systems to work effectively.”

Simpson said that governments in general should be able to “very simply distinguish between their holidaymakers — people that want to come and spend a lot of money in the U.S. — and people that want to come for immigration reasons.”

U.S. Travel has also noted that while the security screening process for Americans has changed very little in the past 20 years, other countries have adopted advanced technology. 

Tori Emerson Barnes, executive vice president of public affairs and policy for U.S. Travel, said during a panel at the association’s Future of Travel Mobility event in Washington in November that she was stopped at Nashville Airport for having 4.2 ounces of hair spray. Countries such as Spain and Italy, meanwhile, have eliminated their ban on liquids.

“Generally speaking, in the last 20 years, if you’re going through the regular line, you’re still taking off your belt, you’re still taking off your shoes. And I’m still getting my hair spray confiscated as a TSA PreCheck and Global Entry holder,” Emerson Barnes said. “What are Italy and Spain doing [differently] where they’re allowing for this ban to go away, and what are the opportunities there?”

Fellow panelist Kevin McAleenan, former acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and now CEO of Pangiam, a facial recognition and biometrics solutions provider, said the answer to her question — and other things that frustrate travelers — is “definitely technology.”

He said that in the U.K. and Europe, CT scanners are being either mandated or incentivized with legislation. With the right software, they will be able to identify that hair spray and water are not liquid explosives. But even in Europe, the incentives, supply chain logistics and software development approval are preventing widespread implementation of such tools, he said. 

“So you’ve got to kind of pull on the technology development, the regulatory oversight and the business incentives to get it there,” McAleenan said. “But I do think we’re not decades away. We’re a few years away from an environment where some of those real inconveniences of going through aviation security can be solved by technology.”


The top job in travel?

The travel industry has long hoped that the legislation and incentives needed to facilitate travel would be solved more quickly if the U.S. had the equivalent of a tourism minister. 

So when Congress voted in late 2022 to create an assistant secretary of travel and tourism position within the U.S. Department of Commerce, the first senior government official overseeing tourism strategy, the industry celebrated. 

One year later, the position has yet to be funded, and the Biden administration has not nominated anyone to fill it. The office of Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., a sponsor of the bill, did not respond to queries about the lack of progress made on fulfilling the legislation that mandates the secretary role. 

Jessica Klement, vice president of advocacy for ASTA, which lobbied hard for the position, said the industry is in a “holding position” when it comes to the assistant secretary, the FAA reauthorization and the looming threat of a government shutdown this month. 

However, she isn’t surprised it is taking this long to fill the secretary position, given that it was part of the “massive” omnibus funding bill that passed at the end of last year, she said. 

Klement said she is hopeful the administration will move forward with a nominee quickly if Congress funds the position.

Absent the secretary, organizations like U.S. Travel and ASTA will continue their advocacy work and hope their members become even more vocal. 

“The Hill is listening to ASTA,” Klement said, adding that the Society tells its members that if they have concerns about policy, to flag them. “They have to tell us because legislators are listening — legislators are starting to gain a better understanding of the travel advisor community, the role they play in the greater travel ecosphere and that they live and work in their in their districts and in their states.”

Tori Emerson Barnes, U.S. Travel
‘In every interaction, we will highlight how travel is an essential industry for American workers, for businesses and the economy as a whole.’
Tori Emerson Barnes, U.S. Travel

Emerson Barnes also said U.S. Travel will continue its work, on both sides of the aisle and in both chambers of Congress, “to advance a set of policy objectives that ease and modernize travel and ultimately increase demand to grow the U.S. economy.

“In every interaction,” she said, “we will highlight how travel is an essential industry for American workers, for businesses and the economy as a whole.”