Estimated read time: 2-3 minutes
CHICAGO — The Biden administration said Monday it is awarding $314 million in grants to 34 states and the District of Columbia to revitalize travel and tourism — two industries hard hit by COVID-19.
The funding, part of a broader COVID-19 relief package approved by Congress, comes as the United States on Monday lifted travel restrictions on fully vaccinated foreign nationals flying from 33 countries and from tourists crossing land borders from Mexico and Canada that have been in place starting in early 2020.
U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo told Reuters in an interview "travel and tourism is one of the hardest-hit industries." The industry is still struggling but will get a "shot in the arm" from the new demand.
She said "people are anxious to travel ... The demand is there. I think we're going to see real increases in travel."
The United States was behind much of the world in lifting travel restrictions and had Raimondo arguing internally for easing them. "I pounded the table on that. I think it's important for the economy," she told Reuters.
International arrivals to the United States fell 75.5% in 2020, while spending by foreign nationals coming to the United States fell 64.3%, by about $150 billion.
Communities along the U.S. borders with Mexico and Canada were especially hard hit as were places like Florida that cater to foreign tourists.
"Prior to the pandemic, Canadians made hundreds of thousands of cross-border trips – both day trips and overnight stays — amounting to nearly a billion dollars of annual expenditures" into New York State," said Patrick Kaler, President and CEO of Visit Buffalo Niagara at an event Monday.
United Airlines President Brett Hart said he expects international travel to return to pre-pandemic levels in 2022, but places like Asia are lagging even as forward bookings for Europe are now surpassing 2019 levels.
"Chicago is a global city, it relies in large measure on tourism," Hart said in an interview. "As people start to come here, we'll see the industry start to pick back up."
U.S. Travel estimates that declines in international visitation since March 2020 resulted in nearly $300 billion in lost export income and estimates that the international inbound travel segment will not recover to 2019 levels until at least 2024.
U.S. Travel says one key need is to fully reopen and resume visitor visa processing at U.S embassies to reduce the backlog for future visitors.
Countries not part of the Visa Waiver program are facing "long wait times in excess of 14 months for a visitor visa appointment," U.S. Travel said.
The countries affected by restricted travel that was lifted Monday for fully vaccinated travelers included Britain, Ireland, the 26 Schengen Area countries, South Africa, Iran, Brazil, India and China.
They comprised 17% of all countries worldwide but accounted for a disproportionate 53% of all overseas visitors to the United States in 2019, U.S. Travel said.