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U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker Speaks at U.S. Travel Association Board of Directors Meeting

Today, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker spoke to the U.S. Travel Association at its spring Board of Directors meeting and announced that international visitors spent a record-breaking $180.7 billion on U.S. travel and tourism-related goods and services in 2013, an increase of more than 9 percent when compared to 2012. On average, international visitors spent nearly $1.3 billion more a month in the United States than they did the previous year.

In addition, Secretary Pritzker outlined her vision for leading the Tourism Policy Council to implement the next phase of the National Travel and Tourism Strategy and highlighted the Administration’s priorities for travel and tourism as a means to grow the economy and support job creation. The Secretary also reiterated the importance of public-private partnerships like the Travel and Tourism Advisory Board and BrandUSA to help drive growth in the travel and tourism industry. 

President Obama launched the National Travel and Tourism Strategy in 2012 to make America a more attractive and accessible destination than ever before. The Strategy sets a goal of drawing 100 million international visitors by 2021, which is expected to generate $250 billion annually in visitor spending by 2012. The strategy also encourages more Americans to travel within the United States.  

Friday, February 28, 2014

Thank you, Roger, for the kind introduction. It is a pleasure to be with leaders from the nation’s #1 services-export industry. Let me start by noting that in 2013, travel and tourism exports, grew at 9 percent. That was the highest growth rate of any major export sector. Period. 

With such strong momentum, I was pleased that White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough singled out this industry as a second-term priority when he stopped by the Commerce Department’s board meeting last month. I hope that signals to you what a priority your industry is for President Obama and the entire Administration. 

Travel and tourism is a priority not only because it is a major driver of economic recovery but also because the partnership between government and industry – all of you – is so fruitful. 

Your leadership and your positive influence on policymaking and execution are absolutely essential to our continued success. So let me say a few things up-front: Thank you for engaging in such a productive and thoughtful way. Please continue to partner closely with government. Let’s publicly celebrate our successes, while also working behind-the-scenes on key challenges. And please know that the President and all of the agencies involved in travel and tourism—Commerce, State, DHS, Interior, and others—are united in supporting this essential American industry. 

Before I discuss how far we have come and our shared path forward, I want to say a special thanks to the U.S. Travel Board members who have also served on the Travel and Tourism Advisory Board. Todd Davidson, Holly Agra, Rosemarie Andolino, Sheila Armstrong, Maryann Ferenc, Elliott Ferguson, Kathleen Matthews, Stephen Perry, Rossi Ralenkotter, William Talbert, and Jonathan Zuk. The TTAB directly advises me on travel and tourism policy. I highly value their input. In close consultation with TTAB, my team has been working hard to develop a robust travel-and-tourism agenda for the coming months and years. 

Today, I will briefly touch on three areas—and then open it up for discussion. I would like to give you the Commerce Department’s take on how the industry is doing, preview our second-term travel-and-tourism agenda, and highlight the need for immediate action in a few key areas. 

Let me start with the industry state of play. I am pleased to announce that we are today releasing our international visitor spending totals for 2013. The headline is that spending rose to a record-shattering $180.7 billion dollars in 2013. That’s nearly $1.3 billion more spent each month by international visitors on American goods and services than in 2012. 

To break these numbers down just a little more, passenger fare receipts were up near 5 percent, and travel receipts for things like food, lodging, recreation, gifts, and entertainment, were up nearly 11 percent. Your industry now accounts for more than 26 percent of all of America’s services exports and nearly 8 percent of exports overall. Altogether, the trade surplus in this industry is bigger than ever at $57 billion dollars. 

Clearly, public-private partnerships like BrandUSA are contributing to this growth.  As you know, BrandUSA has promoted travel to the United States in 8 international markets so far. They were able to do this with $130 million in partner contributions last year from the private sector – more than double the contributions raised the prior year and a 97 percent partner retention rate. I know I am speaking to many of those partners right here, and I want to say Congratulations. This is a terrific partnership, one that we must continue to support and promote together. 

Another factor driving growth in travel and tourism was the President’s Executive Order in 2012. I believe it was a seminal moment for federal government support for this industry. The Executive Order has already led to several concrete accomplishments. Thanks to new visa positions and expanded visa processing facilities around the world, 94 percent of non-immigrant visa applicants worldwide are interviewed within three weeks. Wait times in key markets like Brazil, India, China, and Mexico are all currently less than 10 days. In China, wait times have been under five days for the past two years. More than two million people now have access to Trusted Traveler Programs, up 60 percent from December 2012, and over 30 million people received TSA PreCheck expedited screening as of the end of 2013. 

In addition, the Executive Order led to the creation of a National Travel and Tourism Strategy, which the Commerce Department launched with the Interior Department. We set the ambitious goal of attracting 100 million international visitors to the United States by 2021. 

While we are working diligently to meet that goal, we are also in some ways victims of our own success. For example, we have increased the supply of international travelers, while not doing enough to meet that demand at entry points. The result: a bottleneck of customers at the borders, long wait times, and customer service challenges at our ports of entry. Clearly, we still have more work to do which brings me to our second-term agenda. 

Believe me, I know the importance of first impressions in the hospitality business. We have to do better, and we are going to need your continued help in the President’s second term. Your voices are being heard loud-and-clear. 

In December, the Travel and Tourism Advisory Board met and presented me with industry’s priorities for the next few years. The TTAB said we must make continued progress on travel facilitation, including sustaining the progress on visa issuance and continuing to improve the entry experience. The TTAB encouraged us to do more to support Brand USA, including reauthorizing its funding. TTAB members made a strong push for increased investment in infrastructure, including surface transportation, airports, and Next Gen air traffic control. And the TTAB said we should explore additional public-private partnerships, ways industry and government can work together and make progress on mutual priorities. 

Armed with those industry priorities, in early January I convened the Tourism Policy Council, the interagency group that develops travel and tourism policy for the U.S. government. The Council had been working since September on crafting a second-term agenda. I directed them to ensure that we incorporated TTAB’s input. 

Let me briefly highlight five areas where we are focusing—and, yes, these will sound very similar to the guidance we received from TTAB. 

First, we will focus on improving travel facilitation through expansion of the Visa Waiver Program and other initiatives to keep up with demand for visas. This includes working with Chile on their admission to the Visa Waiver Program. I am happy to report that significant progress has been made. The State Department also just made permanent the non-immigrant visa interview waiver program, which speeds up the process for certain visa renewals. We will be looking for other ways to improve the visa processing system. 

Second, we want to improve the experience of travelers at U.S. ports of entry. I know this is a major issue for you, and I share your sense of urgency. I recently met with DHS Secretary Johnson to discuss it. Senior leaders from our agencies are exploring how to best make progress in this area given security and budgetary constraints. We expect to have meaningful announcements soon. 

Third, we will increase our support for and integration with Brand USA. We will partner in BrandUSA promotions, and coordinate Commerce and BrandUSA activities in key markets. We want to jointly focus on parts of the world where we can have the most impact. 

Fourth, we plan to free up data about federal tourist- sites such as national parks. This will allow entrepreneurs and tour operators to create even better itineraries and products such as apps. 

Finally, we are committed to exploring ways to improve and expand the statistical information we collect and publish on international travelers to the United States. 

I should note that unleashing data is an overall focus for the Commerce Department. In fact, I just announced a new effort to free up more of the vast weather and climate data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

In January, we took these five priorities to a cabinet-level committee convened by the White House National Economic Council. The response was enthusiastic. Discussions are still taking place right now at the highest levels of the Administration. But I am hopeful that we will be able to share exciting details in the weeks ahead—perhaps at IPW. 

Before I open for discussion, I want to highlight three key issues that are now before Congress. First, as you may know, the Travel Promotion Act—which created Brand USA—is up for reauthorization at the end of fiscal year 2015. Thank you, Roger, for your public statement this month noting that “the empirical evidence clearly demonstrates that Brand USA works.” Brand USA has matured into a catalyst for travel and tourism, using public sector funds to leverage millions of dollars from the private sector. The Administration recognizes the importance of reauthorizing the Travel Promotion Act.  I encourage you to continue making your voices heard on this issue. 

Second:  One of the TTAB’s major priorities is support for infrastructure – a basic public good that yields massive returns on investment. For the sake of this industry – and many other industries – we must invest in world-class roads, bridges, airports, and railways. Yet, U.S. investment in infrastructure has fallen to historic lows and significantly lags investments made by our competitors. The President this week announced an aggressive four-year, $302 billion plan to modernize our nation’s surface transportation infrastructure. This proposal would not only fill the current funding gap in the Highway Trust Fund but make $90 billion in new investments over the next four years. I encourage you to continue making your voices heard on this issue. 

The third issue before Congress is immigration reform. This industry has spoken very clearly about how immigration reform is essential to encouraging more travel and tourism to supporting your workforce needs and to strengthening our economy overall. Your continued engagement on this issue is crucial. The comprehensive immigration reform bill passed by the Senate takes common-sense steps to increase the number of international visitors – including business travelers – by improving the visa waiver program and the entry process. The bill will grow our economy by $1.4 trillion dollars over the next 20 years while reducing our deficit. Put simply, immigration reform must be at the top of our country’s to-do list – as it is both a moral obligation and an economic opportunity for our country. 

In closing, I would simply ask that you continue to speak up about the fact that this industry has formed such a fruitful partnership with the Administration. At a time of distrust in government, Congressional gridlock, and general cynicism about public service, it is important that we bring to light a good and productive relationship such as this. Also, please push those of us in the Administration to act on the issues that matter to you. We need you to create a sense of urgency, so that we can create the conditions for you to grow and create jobs. 

The President was very clear when he asked me to join his Cabinet. He asked me to serve as a bridge to the business community, and as your voice in the Administration. With that in mind, I will do everything I can to remove barriers to your success. Overall, I want the public to understand that when we work together as we have been, we can deliver results that are good for business and good for the American people. That’s a compelling message that you can deliver much better than I can.

Again, thank you for engaging with my team in such a productive and collaborative way. 

One final note: We are actively searching for an Executive Director to head the National Travel and Tourism Office. This person will be the public face of the National Travel and Tourism Strategy, working closely with you, our partner agencies, and the Congress to enhance the competitiveness of your industry. If you have a rock-star candidate, please send them to Ken Hyatt. 

Let’s continue to celebrate, accelerate, and maximize the powerful impact of America’s thriving travel and tourism industry in the months and years ahead. Thank you and I am happy to take some questions and comments.