Travel executives should be a happy lot. A growing Chinese middle class is eager to see the world. Oil prices are stunningly low, leaving consumers more income to spend. A global economy demands we be on the move.
But more immediate threats overshadow the industry as travel and tourism officials gather this week in Dallas.
“The combination of global terrorism and a refugee crisis is creating an unprecedented crisis,” David Scowsill, chief executive of the World Travel & Tourism Council, said in a speech opening the group’s annual summit Wednesday. The council represents the largest travel companies and advocates for greater partnerships with government.
Europe is struggling to balance security and immigration amid a refugee disaster born of the Syrian civil war. Many Europeans are questioning the efficacy of the Schengen agreement, which allows passport-free travel across most European Union nations, since the attacks in Paris and Brussels.
Delta Air Lines cited “weakening demand” on April 2 when it said it will suspend its Atlanta-Brussels route until March 2017. In September, Carnival Corp. said refugees moving west via the Mediterranean to escape the Syrian conflict were affecting cruise travel in the region.
Scowsill urged greater intelligence sharing and cooperation by security agencies. “Closing our borders and jeopardizing our freedom to travel is just not the solution,” he said. Such closings directly affect the travel and tourism industry, which the group says is responsible for $7.2 trillion in annual spending, more than 9 percent of global gross domestic product.
The immigration stances of politicians in Europe and the U.S. drew repeated references from several speakers and panels.
“It’s dangerous and it’s fear-mongering,” Hilton Worldwide CEO Christopher Nassetta said of politics targeting immigrants and refugees. “It’s being used politically around the world … people are trying to tap into a level of anger.” Arne Sorenson, chief executive officer of Marriott International, said “political leaders who are feeding fear and emphasizing … closing their borders” represent an immense threat to international travel.
“Hospitality and national security are not mutually exclusive,” U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker said in a speech in the opening session. In an interview after her speech, Pritzker said rhetoric from the Republican presidential race had caused consternation abroad.
Front-runner Donald Trump, who would bar Muslims from entering the U.S. for a time, has also said he would “build the greatest wall you’ve ever seen” along the U.S. southern border and force Mexico to fund it by threatening the nearly $25 billion that Mexicans send home each year in money transfers.
Pritzker said the U.S. and Mexican economies are deeply intertwined, with goods and services adding up to about $1.2 billion a day. “Certainly our global partners are asking us what is going on in the U.S.,” she said. “And frankly, they are concerned.”
In her speech, Pritzker cited the U.S. visa waiver program as one of the biggest successes in expanding tourism. The program allows citizens of 38 nations to visit the U.S. without a visa if their stay is less than 90 days. Last year, in a bid to thwart terrorism, Congress amended the program to exclude people from Iran, Iraq, Sudan, and Syria living in one of the 38 countries, as well as others who have visited those four countries since March 2011.
“The program is at risk, and we need your help,” Pritzker told the audience of tourism professionals and government officials from abroad. The current program “has to change and evolve rapidly” if it is to survive in its current form, she said.
To foster that evolution, U.S. officials need partner nations to “collect, use, and share information to screen travelers,” Pritzker said in her speech. In many countries, that will require new systems to gather data and transfer travelers’ names and other information to foreign security agencies. In Europe, such efforts could collide with privacy laws.