U.S. tourism grows fast as LATAM market toughens

By Doug Newhouse
Editorial Director, TRBusiness

Last year’s 74 million international visitor record to the United States was a milestone. This tremendously positive influx of international tourism is not only long overdue, but evidence that gates are truly opening to test the country’s vast tourism market potential and its influence on the rest of The Americas.

However, considering the vast Americas’ area, it is not surprising that this dynamism is not shared by all key markets.

For example, consumer confidence is clearly not at its highest at the airport operations in Brazil, Argentina, or Uruguay, where Dufry points to a tightening of duty free purse strings — and when Brazilians spend less, South America spends less.

But Dufry CEO Julí­an Dí­az is nevertheless very positive in the medium term, which is pretty important as Dufry dominates all three of these and many other LATAM duty free markets, such as Mexico, Puerto Rico etc.

Elsewhere, the cruise market also remains as dynamic as ever with the Cruise Lines International Association predicting a record 23 million passengers this year, and the positive knock-on effect of this industry on airport business should never be underestimated.

But for me, this year is all about the U.S. market — in terms of positive business sentiment, actual sales results being reported, plus a changing mindset at government level which is putting much more emphasis on foreign tourism earnings (at last).

What is totally unprecedented this time around is that this U.S. government — love them or not — ‘gets tourism.’

A major new report to President Obama by U.S. Homeland Security and the Department of Commerce says last year’s 74 million international visitors spent a record $222 billion, directly supporting 1.1 million jobs.

The report’s title says it all: “Supporting Travel and Tourism to Grow Our Economy and Create More Jobs: A National Goal on the International Arrivals Process and Airport-Specific Action Plans.”

More than 333 million international visitors entered the U.S. in the last five years, with the government now determined to increase these ‘foreign exchange’ earnings.

So what is so significant about that? Well quite a lot, since this change is thanks to the huge political lobbying efforts of several U.S. interest groups — including the very influential U.S. Travel Association.

This represents a massive change from the uncoordinated approach a decade ago and those seemingly never-ending zig-zag immigration lines, plus the standard issue unfriendly immigration officer who always forgot to say, “Welcome to the U.S.”

Thankfully, this is the exception today, with the U.S. government improving visa access for important visitor nationalities, while raising logistics and service standards with a new “can do — must do” attitude. What a massive change!

Of course, there is still much to do, but after 30 years reporting on the U.S. business, there is a new energy about its travel industry.

Carry on like this, and it is a virtual certainty that the government’s aim to hit 100 million annual international visitors by 2021 should be achieved easily — with “huge benefits” for its surrounding neighbors and IAADFS members from Canada down to South America.