No American economic sector has suffered more from the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic than travel and tourism, which netted losses of 4.5 million jobs and more than $500 billion in direct spending to close out 2020. As restrictions and lockdowns continue around the country, the latest monthly jobs report indicates a continued tough road for travel, with economists observing that the awful employment news was mostly driven by continued weakness in the leisure and hospitality sector.
The industry could see a comeback in 2021 — there’s really nowhere to go but up — but of course that will greatly depend on the policy course charted by the Biden administration. Fortunately, there are some encouraging signs, as many of the president’s Cabinet picks have backgrounds that suggest an affinity for policies that will help struggling travel employers.
One example is Alejandro MayorkasAlejandro MayorkasSchumer and McConnell trade places, but icy relationship holds Senate confirms Biden’s intel chief, giving him first Cabinet official The Hill’s Morning Report – President Biden, Vice President Harris begin work today MORE, Biden’s selection to lead the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). As the department’s deputy secretary in the Obama administration, Mayorkas was a leading proponent of the truism that facilitating access to travel is not mutually exclusive with smart and sound travel security. Mayorkas helped lead the expansion of numerous programs that simultaneously enhance both travel security and ease, such as TSA Precheck, Global Entry, and Customs preclearance. Mayorkas also was heavily involved with the Obama administration’s effective responses to the outbreaks of the Zika and Ebola viruses — two health scares that shook travel demand, but wound down quickly thanks in part to aggressive federal activation.
Rhode Island Gov. Gina RaimondoGina RaimondoBiden introduces Commerce, Labor, Small Business Administration nominees The Hill’s Morning Report – Trump finally concedes; 25th Amendment pressure grows Biden taps Isabel Guzman to lead the Small Business Administration MORE, tapped to be the next Secretary of Commerce, is another potentially bright light for travel. She made a substantial investment in a tourism marketing campaign for her state early in her tenure as governor, clearly recognizing the robust return-on-investment of publicly-funded travel promotion programs. She also has emphasized infrastructure investments and assistance for leisure and hospitality businesses as part of her economic response to the pandemic — two points of emphasis we hope to see repeated at the federal level as the country inches toward recovery.
The infrastructure piece will fall very much in the portfolio of Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegThe Hill’s 12:30 Report: Sights and sounds from Inauguration Day Biden faces tall order in uniting polarized nation OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Senate majority offers Biden new avenues on Trump environmental rollbacks | Democrats eye action on range of climate bills | Biden pushing to cancel Keystone XL pipeline as soon as he takes office: reports MORE, Biden’s pick to lead the Department of Transportation. Despite bipartisan support for an ambitious infrastructure package in recent years, progress has not been achievable in a divided Congress. A big infrastructure bill is a priority for Biden, and the high profile that Buttigieg generated as a presidential candidate will bring needed attention to the issue. His background as the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., also could help ensure that the proposal will benefit America’s middle, as well as the coasts and big cities.
Interior Secretary-designate Deb HaalandDeb HaalandOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden recommits US to Paris climate accord | Biden nixes Keystone XL permit, halts Arctic refuge leasing | Interior secretary rescinds wilderness protection order before leaving office Record number of women to serve in Biden Cabinet Interior secretary rescinds wilderness protection order before leaving office MORE will bring a similar sensibility to the management of national parks, which are vital engines of economic activity for the gateway communities that serve them in every corner of the country. National parks have been especially attractive as travel and tourism destinations during the pandemic, and Haaland possesses spot-on credentials to lead the agency that oversees them; as a member of Congress, Haaland served on the committee that orchestrated a significant parks maintenance and investment bill last year.
Investing in recovery will be a necessary but delicate task, and for that reason we are encouraged by the selection of Janet YellenJanet Louise YellenFinance Committee vote on Yellen nomination scheduled for Friday Senate confirms Biden’s intel chief, giving him first Cabinet official Inflation or deflation ahead? MORE to lead the Department of the Treasury. Yellen’s long list of qualifications to hold that post — notably, chair of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Clinton, and board member and eventual chair of the Federal Reserve — rival those of any Treasury secretary in history. Her service as Fed chair during the ongoing recovery from the late-2000s’ financial crisis is of particular note, and her expertise will be an important stabilizing factor at Treasury, and for the broader economy.
One of the most difficult challenges for a travel recovery will be restarting the economically and diplomatically vital international sector. Inbound travel to the U.S. ground to a veritable halt last year, and even by 2024 international visitors are expected to spend $25 billion less in the U.S. than they did in 2018. We are hopeful that the recovery trend can be accelerated by the tenure of Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenSenate confirms Biden’s intel chief, giving him first Cabinet official Biden moves to halt US exodus from World Health Organization Biden taps career civil servants to acting posts at State, USAID, UN MORE as Secretary of State. A longtime national security and foreign policy adviser to President Biden — who was a prominent figure on those issues during his Senate and vice presidential careers — Blinken’s experience and know-how bode well as the U.S. seeks to refresh its international ties, global reputation, and role on the world stage.
2020 was the darkest of hours for travel, which generated $2.6 trillion in economic activity and employment for one in 10 Americans the year before the pandemic. The policies that are crafted in this all-important next year could make or break a recovery, but the capable hands that will be on the levers of federal power are cause for optimism from a devastated U.S. industry.
Roger Dow is president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association. Follow on Twitter @USTravel.