Travel’s ability to bounce back after periods of economic hardship – and inject much-needed revenue directly into San Antonio’s economy – is why the theme of this year’s National Travel and Tourism Week is “The Power of Travel.”
The 38th annual celebration of the U.S. travel industry’s contributions serves to remind visitors and residents of the incredible value the travel sector holds not just for our local economy and workforce, but for our community’s unique identity and culture – and to remind policymakers of travel’s ability to help power recovery efforts.
Travel and tourism are so important to who we are as a community. Before the pandemic, according to a study by Trinity University, the tourism and hospitality industry drove $15.2 billion in annual economic impact and passed along $419 million in revenues to all local government entities. Nationally, the U.S. Travel Association reports that travel generated $2.6 trillion in economic output, 17 million jobs, and delivered a $51 billion trade surplus to the United States in 2019.
However, this vital revenue source, stemming from business and leisure travelers, was severely diminished amid the pandemic.
In 2020, the entire U.S. travel industry lost half a trillion dollars in travel-related spending. Nationally, travel-supported jobs accounted for a staggering 65% of all jobs gone due to the impact of COVID-19. In San Antonio, where more than 140,000 employed workers drew paychecks from tourism and hospitality, that number was sliced nearly in half last year and still is nowhere near recovery.
With such disparate losses, it is clear that a broader economic comeback hinges on recovery within the travel industry.
While the rapid pace of vaccinations has provided hope that a return to normal is on the horizon, a resurgence in travel demand is not inevitable. Without aggressive federal action to reopen the travel economy and spur demand, the industry’s recovery is expected to take as long as five years – far too long to wait for the workers whose livelihoods depend on this vital industry.
With the right measures in place, we can get people moving again in a safe and healthy way, restore our workforce and help power a broader economic recovery. The travel industry needs sustained relief to ensure businesses can maintain operation and workers can stay on payrolls until prolonged demand can truly take hold.
That demand is on the horizon. The CDC has said travel is safe for vaccinated adults, and numerous studies have shown that air travel is low-risk in general with other health safeguards in place such as masks. Those trends are especially encouraging from an economic standpoint. We must pursue reopening as rapidly as we safely can because the halt in travel has caused massive damage to the economy and jobs.
Policymakers must also identify the path to reopening our borders and safely restarting international inbound travel. Simply, domestic leisure travel cannot drive a full recovery on its own. The CDC’s own official press release states vaccinated individuals can safely travel internationally as well as domestically. The European Union, for its part, is taking big strides toward a travel reopening because of the success of vaccines; the U.S., whose vaccination record has been equally strong if not superior, is still lagging behind.
We also must restart professional meetings and events. Business travel is particularly problematic, as the jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction guidelines on large meetings and professional events is highly inconsistent, and the CDC itself offers an imprecise definition of “gatherings” that declines to set a standard for acceptable numbers or capacity. Policies must be made clear and consistent.
The road ahead is challenging, but the travel industry has an incredible ability to bounce back from hard times. We recovered after 9/11, the 2008 financial meltdown, weather calamities and health scares such as Zika, Ebola and SARS. This is the toughest challenge the U.S. travel industry has ever faced, but we know travel is one of the best-equipped industries to lead a revival.