Brand USA highlights industry’s resilience, restates visitor goal

Outgoing President Chris Thompson says state of the industry remains "strong"

Brand USA has asserted its confidence in the destination’s reinvigorated inbound tourism industry after COVID, today restating a target outlined in the 2022 National Travel and Tourism Strategy to welcome 90 million visitors to the United States by 2027 – a volume of people that will inject US$279 billion into the US economy.

Speaking at the US Travel Association’s IPW 2024 conference in Los Angeles this morning, Brand USA’s outgoing President and CEO Chris Thompson extolled that the state of the US tourism industry remains “strong”, citing increasing visitation and data from international markets.

Thompson, who was presenting at his final IPW as the head of Brand USA, was that optimistic he went one step further, personally predicting the 2027 goal would be achieved 12 months earlier.

“The USA remains the world leader in international arrivals in long-haul arrivals with 23.5 million travellers arriving from origin markets outside the Americas,” Thompson said. Of the 2023 figure, approximately 960,000 arrivals were from Australia and a further 140,000 were from New Zealand.

Chris Thompson, outgoing President and CEO, Brand USA

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Thomspon said stronger-than-expected global visitor numbers in 2023 were driven by robust economic growth and consumers’ desire to prioritise travel, utilising excess savings to fund overseas holidays.

He said that while the industry faces “headwinds and challenges” the US still welcomed 67 million visitors in 2023 (encompassing the county’s North American neighbours of Mexico and Canada), accounting for 5% of all international visitation globally and 16% of all international arrivals. By comparison to the forecast, those visitors spent US$213 billion on travel and tourism activities throughout the country – which itself represented a 28% increase compared to the year before.

Those figures include a relatively flat Asia market (compared to pre-pandemic), which Thompson says is still waiting to be fully unlocked and remains “slow to return”.

“The expected growth we will eventually see from there will continue to provide necessary economic boost to our US communities as visitors from Japan, China and South Korea typically spend four times as much as the average international visitor.”

China’s air capacity in 2023 remained substantially below pre-pandemic levels due to delayed border openings, however the outlook for 2024 is promising. Thompson said weekly flights from China to the US will jump from 65 in January to nearly 130 by the end of the year (which will be around 50% of the capacity that operated from China pre-pandemic).

Brand USA will turn its focus to drawing attention of upcoming global events taking place in the United States

“Connectivity still remains a key aspect of growing visitation,” Thompson said of airlift to the United States.

Current projections for 2024 show that scheduled seat capacity should reach 157 million, surpassing 2019 levels by 7%. Seat capacity on non-stop flights out of Asia Pacific markets is significantly higher than 2023 levels. India, Singapore, South Korea, Vietnam and New Zealand are all poised to surpass pre-pandemic levels in 2024, the tourism chief added.

On the topic of new connectivity to the USA, Thompson noted Qantas’ Auckland-New York JFK which debuted in September last year, and Air India’s Mumbai-New York JFK route which commenced in February 2023.

This year so far, daily spending by visitors to the United States has ploughed approximately US$660 million into the national economy, per day. Forecasts from Tourism Economics suggest spending by international visitors will exceed 74% between 2023 and 2027.

According to Brand USA’s own research, the number of people planning to take a trip to the USA over the next 12 months has increased from last year and is gradually approaching pre-pandemic levels.

“The state of Brand USA is strong,” Thompson noted. “Here we are today as an organisation, also coming out of COVID, we’re in a great position to lead our industry back to international visitation and we’re excited about that.”

Career reflection

With over 20 IPW’s under his belt, either with Brand USA or the state of Florida before his 12-year tenure with the national tourism body, Thompson acknowledged how the industry has changed during his career, specifically with so much “moving to the palm of our hand”.

Relecting on the past 40 years of the US tourism industry

“We [now] unlock hotel room doors, we book trips, we read travel stories, all from our telephone”.

“With as much have things have actually changed a lot has remained the same, not the least of which travel’s ability to connect culture, to contribute to the fabric of communities and to create lasting memories and once in a lifetime experiences,” Thompson said.

In the past 40 years, visitation to the United States increased from just under 21 million in 1984, to 45 million in the 1990s, soaring to 67 million in 2012. That was two years after the Travel Promotion Act was signed by former President Barrack Obama to create Brand USA. By 2019, visitor numbers peaked at under 80 million, before the pandemic.

“In 2020 the world came to a halt with borders closed. Brand USA was forced to scale back to a state of readiness.” Thompson said that during that dormant phase of travel, Brand USA helped contribute to the pent-up demand “that we’re enjoying today”.

In 2023, international visitation reached 67 million – just four years after a complete shutdown of the industry, he highlighted.

“Brand USA’s commitment to inviting international travellers to the United States is a key reason why the USA remains the most aspirational travel destination in the world,” said Thompson.

Moving forward, Brand USA aims to engage consumers in a new way as it sets out to capitalise on the global events taking place in the United States over the next 3-4 years, including WorldPride in Washington DC, the 100th Anniversary of Route 66, the FIFA World Cup, and the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

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