US Travel’s Tori Emerson Barnes on the organization’s priorities for 2020

The U.S. Travel Association scored a major victory in late December when Brand USA, the nation’s tourism marketing arm, was reauthorized by Congress. News editor Johanna Jainchill spoke with Tori Emerson Barnes, the organization’s executive vice president of public affairs and policy, about the three-year lobbying effort it spearheaded on Brand USA’s behalf and what U.S. Travel will prioritize in 2020 to reverse the four-year slide in the U.S. of the global travel market.

Q: What will be on U.S. Travel’s agenda for 2020 with Brand USA’s renewal behind you?

A: We are educating the traveling public about the Real ID deadline on Oct. 1 and putting forward major policy recommendations to help mitigate the negative impact of the deadline. Within that scope are significant security facilitation items such as expanding biometric technology at Customs and Border Protection checkpoints and bringing it forward to the TSA checkpoints and continuing to expand TSA Precheck. Also, allowing for online opportunities to submit documentation to get a Real ID and to move Real ID and passport technology to the mobile realm and bring it into this century.

We engaged on the United States-Mexico-Canada trade agreement because travel is the No. 2 export, and without it, the trade deficit would have been a lot higher in 2018. Trade agreements are important to travel. It’s not just about manufacturing and technology. With other trade agreements, like with Japan and the U.K., there are things we can do to help better facilitate travel.

Q: What about trade wars, like with China?

A: We have been working with the administration to understand the importance of travel as it relates to this trade war. Chinese travelers on average spend $7,000, while the average international traveler spends $4,000. So the Chinese traveler is critical to us continuing to grow. Travel from China was down about 5.5% this year. We want to see a quick resolution to the trade dispute with China.

Q: U.S. Travel said renewing Brand USA was the most immediate way to prevent a further slide in global travel market . What more should the government do to help reverse the trajectory?

A: We want to see resolution and a reduction of disputes with countries, and we want to see free trade agreements that can help grow travel and an expansion of the Visa Waiver Program, with countries like Israel and Brazil in particular. The recent addition of Poland is real dollars and jobs for the U.S. Other things we can do is cut down visa wait times — we were concerned that this summer the wait in China was as long as 35 days — and get wait times down from a customs standpoint. If people are coming into this country and waiting two hours for customs, they’re not going to want to come back. Things like that can help increase travel. Also, improvements to airline and airports and other infrastructure throughout the U.S. where we’re dealing with capacity issues are other ways the government can help. We think a major infrastructure overhaul is critical not only for international travel but for domestic travel, as well.

Q: U.S. Travel spearheaded a three-year campaign to get Brand USA renewed. What resonated most with lawmakers to make it happen?

A: We had the right strategy going in, which was that we had a unified industry all marching in the same direction with the same messaging around the importance of growing travel, the need for a continued welcome message and, really, the positive impact and the 25-to-1 return on investment Brand USA provides. All under the context of the decline in our market of travel. At the hearing, I testified that it was awesome to hear members of Congress get in a fun competition over who has the best ice cream or wine or coffee in their districts and how they attracted folks to different destinations. I come from manufacturing — 15 years in the auto industry — and that is so tangible. The thing about travel is it can be tangible, but you have to make the case for it. I think we’re able to do that. In that hearing members of Congress put forward that they recognize the importance to their constituents, and they included Brand USA at the end of the day.