United States

Travel and tourism was a major contributor to the United States economy before COVID-19, directly accounting for 2.9% of total GDP and supporting 3.9% of the nation’s workforce in 2019 (this increases to 6.0% of the workforce when including indirect effects). Travel and tourism was the country’s third largest export, accounting for 9.4% of U.S. exports of goods and services. The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic saw travel and tourism’s share of the economy fall to 1.7% of total GDP and 2.6% of the workforce in 2020 – a loss of almost 2.2 million direct jobs.

In 2020, inbound tourism to the United States declined by 75.8% to 19.2 million visitors. International visitation increased slightly in 2021 to 22.1 million visitors. However, this remained 72% below pre-COVID-19 levels.

International tourism receipts (travel exports) declined 64.7% to USD 84.3 billion in 2020. In 2021, receipts declined an additional 1.6% to USD 82.9 billion. Mexico overtook Canada as the top source market in the United States for the first time in 2020. Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru showed a strong rebound in 2021, with many returning to or surpassing pre-COVID levels.

The United States traditionally has a strong domestic travel market which, in 2019, accounted for 85% of travel demand in the country. Domestic travel demand fell 46% in 2020 to USD 559 billion.

Domestic travel is not expected to reach pre-pandemic levels until 2023, while domestic business travel is not expected to recover until 2025. International arrivals are expected to reach 2019 levels by 2025, according to the U.S. Travel Association.

Travel and tourism in the United States is highly decentralised. Public authorities manage travel and tourism at the national, regional, state, and local levels. These include the federal government, state governments, and destination marketing organisations.

The National Travel and Tourism Office (NTTO), within the International Trade Administration (ITA) of the United States Department of Commerce, is the central point of contact within the federal government. NTTO is the source of official tourism statistics and works closely with the U.S. Commercial Service at U.S. embassies to promote tourism. Brand USA is a non-profit corporation that promotes travel to the United States, working with the government to provide insights for international visitors.

The Department of Commerce facilitates co-operation between the private sector and other federal agencies for policy co-ordination with respect to travel and tourism issues. Key travel and tourism activities at the Department of Commerce include:

  • The Travel and Tourism Advisory Board (TTAB), which includes up to 32 private sector representatives appointed to provide policy advice to the Secretary of Commerce.

  • The Tourism Policy Council (TPC), an inter-agency council established to co-ordinate the national policies and programmes of federal agencies that significantly affect international travel and tourism, recreation, and national heritage resources.

NTTO’s operational budget for the fiscal year 2021 was approximately USD 7.7 million. The budget is supplemented by the selling of research reports and data and inter-agency agreements. Brand USA is supported by up to USD 100 million per year from the Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA) fees paid by international travellers from countries participating in the visa waiver programme and matched funds from the private sector. Brand USA funding became a significant challenge during the pandemic due to reduced international visitors from visa-waiver countries. As a result, in March 2022, the Restoring Brand USA Act provided USD 250 million in relief funding to Brand USA for the fiscal year 2022.

The United States developed and launched a new National Travel and Tourism Strategy in 2022 (see Box 1.4). The Tourism Policy Council created the Strategy to focus the United States’ efforts in support of the tourism sector, which has been deeply and disproportionally affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Strategy follows a four-point approach to reduce the sector’s carbon footprint, create safe and secure checkpoints, and bolster tourism in underserved and underrepresented communities across the country

The new Strategy supports the current Administration’s priorities of diversity, equity, and inclusion; mitigating the impacts of the climate crisis; job growth and workforce development; and building back a more sustainable and resilient sector. A key recovery priority in the United States has been to “Build Back Better”, based on broad-based, equitable, community-led economic development with an emphasis on supporting SMEs and increasing resiliency to future health, environmental and other crises.

The United States passed recovery measures to support small businesses, airlines, airports, and leisure and hospitality businesses. The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA) provided additional relief to address the continued impact of the pandemic on the economy. The USD 1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package includes federal support for the recovery of the travel and tourism sector.

As part of the ARPA, the Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration’s Travel, Tourism & Outdoor Recreation programme focused on accelerating the recovery of communities that rely on the travel, tourism and outdoor recreation sectors. USD 750 million of EDA’s funds were allocated to support the following efforts:

  • State Tourism Grants: USD 510 million in non-competitive awards to help states quickly invest in marketing, infrastructure, workforce and other projects to rejuvenate safe leisure, business and international travel.

  • Competitive Grants: USD 240 million to help communities that have been hardest hit by challenges facing the travel, tourism and outdoor recreation sectors to invest in infrastructure, workforce or other projects to support the recovery of the sector and economic resilience of the community in the future.

The funds are being used by states for state-wide or regional marketing campaigns; infrastructure upgrades to existing tourism destinations; outdoor recreation improvement projects; improving accessibility to existing tourism or outdoor recreation sites for individuals who speak other languages or have mobility restrictions; state-wide strategic travel and tourism planning; and creating or building out tourism and hospitality sector workforce development and training programmes. Overall, stimulus packages were effective in reaching the travel and tourism community and helping employees and businesses impacted.

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