Much progress has been made since Geoff Freeman took his post as CEO of the U.S. Travel Association on Sept. 1, 2022. He inherited a list of concerns as the industry struggled to recover from a pandemic and led his team on an ambitious agenda to resolve hindrances to travel, including long wait times for visas and chronic flight delays.
We caught up with Freeman on-site at the 45th Annual NYU International Hospitality Industry Investment Conference in New York City, where he also spoke on a panel that addressed the current state of travel. The following is excerpted from our interview, edited for length and clarity.
International travel to the U.S. has declined — partly due to visa wait times, which can be more than a year, or even 800 days for some countries. Are we any closer to a solution?
What gives me hope is that the State Department's tone is changing. For many months, if not years, the State Department's attitude seemed to be, “We don't have a problem; the global median wait time for visas is acceptable.” And we kept saying the global median wait time is irrelevant when it takes 500 days or more for travelers from a number of countries to get a visa. The State Department has come around to that point of view.
What actions has the State Department taken to address the problem?
They’ve homed in on markets with the biggest backlogs and sent out SWAT teams of sorts to play catch-up on processing applications. In India, for example, we’ve seen wait times drop by about 50 percent. Now, to be fair, they were 700 days before, and now they’re around 400 days. Neither is acceptable, but something is working. So, I think things are trending in the right direction.
We want to see every country around the world at 30 days or less for visa wait times, and until we're at that point, we will have our foot on the pedal to make sure it happens. I'm cautiously optimistic that a year from now we're not going to be in the same situation.
Can the process of applying for and granting visas be modernized and streamlined?
Sure. Maybe we don't need to have everybody go to a customs office for an in-person interview. Maybe that can be done by secure videoconference. Some of that might require statutory changes, so let's go make statutory changes. When we created TSA PreCheck years ago, the title of the report was “A Better Way.” That's kind of the motto of the travel industry: There's got to be a better way to do this.
What else needs to be reinvented to improve the air travel system?
Nearly a quarter of all flights were delayed or canceled last year. We shouldn't accept this as the way it has to be. We need an air-traffic control system that's of the 21st century, not of the last century. We don't have that yet. I think the traveler should be more demanding and should not become tolerant of the shortcomings in the system today.
Where is the U.S. compared to other developed nations in terms of air-traffic control?
We're behind Europe. We have not invested in the number of air traffic controllers or the technology that they have. There are aspects of the Canadian system that are better than what we have. What we have in the U.S. is hubris. We believe we have the best of everything. We believe that there's nowhere else travelers will want to go. Well, neither of those things are true. A little bit of humility here, to learn what other countries are doing better and how we can replicate them, would not be the worst thing.
Is there funding to modernize the system?
We're making an effort now to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration. We have asked for very specific things, tens of millions for customs officials, billions to go into technology. Is the money there? Sure. Are they willing to fund it? When there's a will, there's a way. Where there's demand, they figure it out.
My fear is that as we’ve become tolerant, we’re giving policymakers an excuse to go put the money somewhere else. Well, this is where the money should be. The economic benefits of a world-class aviation system are off the charts. Perhaps we just haven't made that clear enough.
There is evidence, though. I’ve seen U.S. Travel’s statistics about the unrealized potential for travel.
Absolutely. More than 50 percent of travelers say they would travel more frequently if the air-travel system were less of a hassle. That means today's air-travel system is artificially reducing travel. That's a whole new way of looking at things.
Why have you come to a hotel investment conference to talk about this?
Every hotel person should realize they are part of the travel industry and should be as invested as anyone else in the state of the aviation system. If I were to critique our industry, I’d say we tend to be a little myopic — focused on our own segment of the industry. But most of the people here had to fly. They had to get from the airport to downtown. Now they’re depending on dining, attractions, local transportation. All of these things are integrated. We will do the traveler a favor and we'll do ourselves a favor in the long run by being more integrated ourselves.
A number of hotel executives are talking about immigration reform as a needed solution to staffing shortages. Will that ever happen?
As Hilton CEO Chris Nassetta said onstage today, in this political environment immigration reform is a pipe dream. Right now there is a cadre of elected officials who have zero interest in solving the problem. And the truth is, that group is just too big right now.
The fact that we don't have a good immigration policy is why we have customs wait times. We're taking customs officers out of the airports and sending them to the land borders. These unintended consequences of having a dysfunctional immigration system are off the charts. We just don't have a political class large enough that shares our desire to solve the problem. But that will change. It's not a massive shift to increase the size of the group that actually wants to solve the problem.
Are you concerned about travel boycotts, such as the NAACP and other civil rights groups warning against travel to Florida?
Two things: First, let's acknowledge that Florida is about as diverse as they come and generally is a state that welcomes diversity. A consequence, though, of the current political environment is that people are angry. People want a substantive way to express their concern. Screaming into social media doesn't provide people with the outlet they want, and whether we like it or not, travel is a tangible way that an individual feels empowered to send a message. We're sympathetic to that, but the people who pay the price for that decision are not the people that you want to pay the price.
Second, it's hard to measure if it works. We would argue that the act of going there is probably more likely to have a positive effect. Because that's how you open minds, right? It's through engagement. But I'm not going to dispute this desire that people have to express their feelings. I get it. I don't think this is a productive way to do it.
Personally, I disagree with a zillion policies; that doesn’t mean I’m not going to a state that has a law I don’t agree with. I'm not defined by going there. I think we also have to acknowledge there are people around the world who disagree with a zillion policies the United States has. Should they not come here? Does everything our government do define who you are and define who I am? By not going for those reasons, you're leaving a lot of good experiences on the table.
Is the prevalence of gun violence in the U.S. affecting travel?
We know that for international travelers, issues of safety are becoming increasingly concerning. We also know that travel and safety go hand in hand. The first step is realizing we have a problem. I've had a discussion with two CEOs here today about public safety. I think it will become an increasingly common conversation in the travel space. Then from there, we'll figure out what we need to do.