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Blunt Questions Industry Leaders on COVID Testing Mandates Hampering Travel & Tourism Recovery

June 08, 2022

WASHINGTON – At a U.S. Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Tourism, Trade, and Export Promotion hearing this week, U.S. Senator Roy Blunt (Mo.) questioned industry leaders about the impact COVID pre-departure testing requirements are having on the recovery of the travel and tourism industry.

Following is a Transcript:

BLUNT: Ms. Neufang, I think we've seen more return to personal travel than we have business travel. How much of that do you think is just a changing of how people are going to handle their business travel in the future? And how much of it do you think is responding to anything the government could do about it?

NEUFANG: Thank you for that question. We do know that, from our members, 79% expressed, within recent weeks, that they experienced disruptions in their companies and their businesses due to government regulations that banned or prevented them from doing travel. And where we see it is that the incoming test currently prevents, on an individual level, someone's—an American unwilling to leave the country, not knowing if they can come back home. And, for an international traveler who may represent a large corporation or a group who's traveling, that there's this big investment in meetings. And, if they can't attend that meeting because they then test positive, it becomes a huge downward spiral in their budgets and their impact. So there's some—we do see that there's resistance to invest in having those meetings, especially in the United States, while we have this ban. And it's very important that we remove that. We think, at the same time, that there is a new reality with travel and work and remote work and the kinds of in-office or out-of-office work life that we have today. But we also know that there's new kinds of travel that come with that. We know that there is travel that is happening where remote workforces now need to get together once a month, once a quarter, or every six months to have strategy sessions and do that. Those are things that used to happen on campus that didn't require travel. We call that return-to-base travel. And there's other kinds of travel that is required now as a result of the new normal. So we think the new normal may look different. But the spend should actually get back to those current levels by the end of 2024. And we've been lagging on the international front while we've been moving straight ahead on the domestic front.

BLUNT: Mr. Cutié, what about your—I know your numbers are high, and, obviously, the airport is being utilized in a significant way. But what do you see in terms of return of your domestic numbers versus your international incoming flights?

CUTIÉ: Okay, thank you, Senator. One of the things that I think are the most amazing regarding our numbers is that we are, like I said, we're the number one airport for international passengers. But we're still not back 100%. We're still about 80% to 85% back international. As I mentioned before, on any given day, we're anywhere from 100% to 105% back domestic. So, but, to underscore what Ms. Barnes said, business travel, international, I think, is where the untapped market lies. So if we can get these restrictions lifted, we could really tap into that, you know, that one missing piece that will get us over the top, which is the international business traveler. I think we're getting very close when it comes to leisure international travel. But if we can really tap into that business travel market, I think that will really put us over the top. Again, we're number one in the U.S., but we're still not back. You know, we're about 80% to 85% back international. I mean, I think we're going to be way better once these restrictions are lifted, and we tap into that business travel market.

BLUNT: I think I signed a letter with at least 30 senators that said eliminate the test coming into the country for people that are vaccinated. I'm hearing all three of you, I think, say that might be the single biggest thing we could do. Ms. Barnes, where are we on the whole topic of the kind of help people need for their destinations to work? Where are we on H-2A and B and other permits like that?

BARNES: Thank you for the question, Senator. And first, thank you very much for your leadership on the emergency funding for Brand USA. Here in Orlando, where I am right now at our international travel trade show, it's been highly recognized how important Brand USA is to the recovery. But, just to underscore, really quickly, the point on pre-departure testing, we've got, you know, great, great that we have the funding for Brand USA. We could be doing even more if we were able to couple that with an elimination of this pre-departure testing. Our estimate is is that 5.4 million visitors and $9 billion in travel spending could happen this year, coupled with that Brand USA, if we lift the pre-departure testing right now. So it really is important that we do that. Another issue that you mentioned there are the need to increase the H-2B visa allotment because, right now, we don't have enough workers. And we need to ensure that we are able to welcome folks, both domestically and internationally. And, for every 100 jobs across all industry sectors, there are 65 people—Americans, I'm sorry—looking for work. So, clearly, we don't have the workforce that we need here with 1.5 million jobs open in leisure and hospitality. So we need to increase that H-2B visa cap, and we need to allow folks that have already gotten an H-2B to be waived from being held against the cap. So we need more workers, Senator. Thank you.

BLUNT: Well, thank you. Thank you, Ms. Barnes, and thank you, Chair.

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