US international visitor numbers continue to recover

Data from the US-government National Travel and Tourism Office show that international arrival numbers continue to recover despite continuing headwinds from visa delays, high airline prices, and continuing economic uncertainty around the world.

The latest NTTO data indicate that international arrivals recovered to 72.7% of pre-covid levels in September, and at a little under 4.9 million, was more than double the number of arrivals in September 2021.

International travelers accounted for 14% of total traveler dollars spent in 2019, but that has dipped. Although US domestic leisure and business travel has recovered strongly from the pandemic lows, international travel has struggled.

The market has been hampered by high airline ticket prices, the strong dollar, and continuing global economic uncertainty which has discouraged overseas companies from sending employees to the United States for business trips.

The US Travel Association warned earlier this week that overseas visitor numbers were also under pressure from visa delays, with travelers from the US’ top ten markets, including Brazil, India, and Mexico, now waiting an average of 400 days to be granted a visa.

But there is light on the horizon. Inflation and energy prices seem to be stabilizing, travel budgets remain resilient and China is re-opening.

More flexible remote working policies are giving people greater ability to both travel and earn at the same time, and a number of surveys have indicated that consumers are prioritizing spending on experiences over spending on goods, providing a cushion even if there is a recession.

China, which sent 2.8 million visitors to the US in 2019, is softening its covid restrictions, including the harsh quarantine-on-return requirements that had discouraged many travelers from leaving the country.

However, Umar Riaz, Global Hospitality Lead for EY in New York says the impact of China’s re-opening may not be immediate.

“I think China opening up will be a very significant event for the travel industry and hotels,” Riaz told HOTELS Magazine. “There were 170 million border crossings (out of China) in 2019, so even if we get only a portion of that back, it’s going to be a huge boon. But for that to happen, airlines are going to have to increase capacity to travel back and forth to China, because at this point it is significantly constrained.”

Chinese state media report that at the beginning of this month there were 77% fewer flights than at the same point in 2019 and that the average price of an air ticket had jumped 30% in a week since the government started relaxing restrictions.