As the economy weakens, the $750 billion-a-year travel industry is trying to find new ways to promote incoming international travel.
In the past six years, the industry figures it has lost $130 billion in potential revenue from foreign visitors, Roger Dow, head of the Travel Industry Association, said on the sidelines of an industry meeting.
He attributes the loss to several factors, including the process to get a travel visa and the perception of how travelers will be treated passing through U.S. Customs.
“The foreign press is beating us over the head with the perception that when you come here it will be a big hassle, you will face major delays and people are going to treat you badly” at the airport, he said.
About 1,000 members of the association met Wednesday in Chicago to discuss some of the challenges the industry faces. Executives said the U.S. needs to market itself better and make the country appear more welcoming to foreigners.
The average wait to get an interview to apply for a visa is 85 days in some countries, said Dow.
Despite the obstacles, travel business from Canada and Mexico has risen in the past couple of years. But the average traveler from those areas spends about $900 per person while visiting, compared to $4,000 dollars spent by Europeans, Dow said.
Domestic travelers also are feeling the pinch with the softening economy, said Henry Harteveldt, vice president and principal analyst for Forrester Research Inc.
“There’s less and less disposable income,” said Harteveldt. “The sobering outlook for the U.S. is going to take its toll on travel.”
The uncertainty of the airline industry also has been discouraging for domestic travelers.
“Customer satisfaction as a whole is decreasing,” said Michelle Peluso, president of Travelocity. “Travel is more frustrating than ever before.”
Peluso suggests agents, hotels and airlines work together to ensure customer loyalty even if something goes awry with travel plans. Citing the customer service example of Amazon.com, she said travel companies need to offer reimbursements or replacements when expectations aren’t met.
The travel industry pointed out Wednesday that the U.S. spends zero dollars in marketing itself as a vacation getaway in other countries.
“We don’t promote coming to America,” said Dow.
In comparison, Greece spends about $150 million, Australia about $120 million and the United Kingdom and Mexico spend from $60 million to $80 million a year on promotion, he said. Congress is considering a bill that would add an additional charge to visa fees to create a fund for marketing the U.S. as a travel destination. If it wins approval, Dow estimates the fund could reach $200 million in three years.
On the state level, Illinois has launched a spring break campaign to bring travelers to the state.
“In 2006 the state saw a 1 to 2 percent growth in tourism and a 5 percent growth in tourism revenue,” said Jan Kostner, deputy director of the Illinois Bureau of Tourism.
However, she attributes the growth in revenue to higher prices for hotel stays and transportation costs. The state also has capitalized on its Abraham Lincoln sites and Barack Obama’s link to the state to increase tourism rates, Kostner said.
Yet, Dow cautioned that if the difficulties circling the visa process aren’t solved soon, it may hurt revenue outlooks if Chicago secures the 2016 Olympics.