Millions of Americans are passing through the nation’s airports as the Thanksgiving holiday weekend comes to an end. Reporter Katie Johnston recently spoke with Roger Dow, chief executive of the US Travel Association trade group, about the country’s diminishing share of international tourists, racial profiling at Logan International Airport, and watching former secretary of state Colin Powell getting searched by a Transportation Security Administration agent.
Earlier this year, you launched a campaign to highlight the travel industry’s economic impact to candidates running for office. Which party is more in tune with the travel industry’s needs?
The challenge we have, whether it’s Democrat or Republican, is getting elected officials to understand that this industry is serious business. We’re often seen as frivolous. But the bottom line is we employ 1 in 8 Americans, and we’re over an $800 billion industry. This travel industry is 2½ times bigger than every aspect of the auto industry combined.
According to your organization, the travel industry has created jobs at a 16 percent faster pace than the rest of the economy during the recovery. Why is that?
The reason is you can add [jobs] immediately. So if you get the Copley Marriott, if their occupancy is up 10 percent, their HR department knows people that they can call up and put back to work immediately. You don’t have to wait for the plant to be built. So it can flex very quickly up and very quickly down.
In 2010, you helped lead the charge to create the nation’s first office marketing the US as a tourist destination. Why is this necessary?
Between 2000 and 2010, the number of long-haul travelers in the world went up by 40 percent, or 60 million travelers. During the same 10 years, the United States’ [share] went up 1.5 percent, or 450,000 travelers. We call it the lost decade.
One, it became very hard after Sept. 11 to get through airports, to get your visa if you’re from another country. The second thing is that the US was [perceived as] fairly arrogant when it came to getting through Customs and Border Protection. The word around the world was, if you said the wrong thing you’d be put in the penalty box. The third reason is the United States has not promoted travel and tourism. Every developed country in the world spends between $60 million and $180 million a year: “Come to Canada,” “Come to China,” “Come to Turkey.” The reputation was America doesn’t want you.
The nation’s share of overseas travelers shrank after visa laws were tightened. What impact does that have on the US economy?
We lost 37 percent of our market share. If you ran a company and that happened, you’d be fired. But all the research we do in China, Brazil, around the world, America is still the number one inspirational place where people want to come. Every 1 percent increase in international travelers adds $1.5 billion to the US economy.
You are also in favor of a new air security screening system.
There’s no reason that Katie Johnston should be treated like the next Mohamed Atta, but you are. What we want is a much larger trusted traveler program where the people who travel a lot can voluntarily provide information [and get through security without removing their shoes and taking out liquids]. I mean, I’ll give them my high school grades if it’ll get me through TSA faster. But the bottom line is, we have to have a system that focuses on the highest risk passenger. I watched Colin Powell get wanded one day.
TSA officers at Logan have been accused of racial profiling. Does that concern you?
It does. They should be a lot more concerned with somebody who is buying a one-way ticket to the United States, someone who doesn’t have a suitcase, someone who bought their ticket for cash that day, and someone who is going to Detroit who doesn’t have a coat. That should ring alarm bells, not the color of his skin or where he came from.
Airlines keep charging for what used to be free amenities. First it was meals and checked baggage, now it’s legroom and window seats. Can you do anything about that?
What does something about that is the free market system. If you’ve got an airline that is not charging those fees, I think they ought to be talking about that. The market has to speak.Katie Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.