Lawmakers and the travel industry are pitching smoother security lines, faster visas, and upgraded airports as ways to ease the return of tourism when the U.S. reopens to vaccinated foreigners in November.
Senators said they are working to pull together a big travel and tourism bill at a Tuesday Senate Commerce, Science, and Technology subcommittee hearing.
The hearing comes just a day after the White House announced the U.S. will soon allow entry to most foreign air travelers as long as they’re fully vaccinated against Covid-19, a move that the struggling industry has been urging for months.
“With this announcement, the hard work now begins to make the United States the top destination in the world once again,” Tori Emerson Barnes, executive vice president of public affairs and policy at the U.S. Travel Association, said at the hearing.
Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), who leads the Commerce Subcommittee on Tourism, Trade, and Export Promotion, said members have been working on a bipartisan package, called the Omnibus Travel and Tourism Act of 2021. It would establish permanent federal leadership on travel policies, invest in public-private partnerships to increase visits to the U.S., study ways to screen airport travelers for Covid-19, and create a task force to address the pandemic’s impact on air travel.
“The travel and tourism industry, vital to every state’s economy and workforces, still needs significant help,” Rosen said. “I’m happy to report though that help is on the way.”
Full committee ranking member Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said the travel industry’s struggle is a “bipartisan issue,” so senators’ staff formed a working group to package bills together.
Suzanne Neufang, CEO of the Global Business Travel Association, said the business travel industry needs additional support and resources to recover. Her organization supports the Omnibus Tourism Act of 2021, including its “needed improvements in the visa process,” she said.
“Prior to Covid-19, the process for obtaining visas and passports was already strained,” she said. “Now, the processing time is significantly longer.”
Wicker said there is a “huge problem” with the delay in passports and visas.
Emerson Barnes said lawmakers should provide relief to travel businesses affected by the pandemic, streamline aviation security, and enact stimulus measures to spur travel demand, including the Hospitality and Commerce Job Recovery Act (S. 477) and the Restoring Brand USA Act (S. 2424).
Airport Security Lines
Industry officials also stressed the need for more spending on aviation security as travel picks up.
Christopher Bidwell, senior vice president of security at Airports Council International – North America, said lawmakers need to make sure there are enough officers at Customs and Border Protection and the Transportation Security Administration as well as adequate technology at security checkpoints.
Airport industry groups have expressed support for a recently introduced bill (S. 2717)from Democratic Sens. Edward Markey (Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) that would give TSA additional money to bolster its security technology and pay salaries. To fund those priorities, the measure would end diversion of the 9/11 Security Fee — a $5.60 charge travelers pay when buying a plane ticket, which has been used for other priorities in recent years.
“Each year billions of dollars in both TSA and CBP user fees are needlessly diverted from their intended purpose to subsidize other federal programs,” Bidwell said in written testimony. “In this time of national emergency, it is critical to stop these budgetary gimmicks, end the fee diversion, and ensure the revenue is restored to its intended use.”
Although airport operators were happy to see $20 billion for airport infrastructure in the Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure bill (H.R. 3684) now before the House, it is only a “one-time infusion” of spending when the system has $115 billion in infrastructure needs, Bidwell said.
“Congress must find new ways to ensure funding for these much-needed improvement projects,” he said.
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