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Tourism leaders praise move to end COVID testing for foreign air travelers

Updated June 10, 2022 - 11:52 am

Tourism leaders are applauding the Biden administration’s plan to lift its requirement that international air travelers to the United States take a COVID-19 test within a day of boarding their flights.

The action is expected to increase international travel to Las Vegas as multiple airlines bring back their nonstop flights from abroad to Harry Reid International Airport.

The lack of international visitors and lower attendance at Las Vegas conventions that typically draw many attendees from overseas — have often been cited as the biggest reasons Las Vegas has not fully recovered from the coronavirus pandemic.

MGM Resorts International Chairman and CEO Bill Hornbuckle, who also chairs the U.S. Travel Association Advisory Board, called the move “a huge development for Las Vegas.”

“Expanding international travel has been a top priority for our industry, the state of Nevada and the Travel and Tourism Advisory Board, and we are grateful to the Biden administration and congressional leaders for their collaboration on this issue,” Hornbuckle said. “I want to especially thank Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto – along with the entire Nevada congressional delegation – whose leadership was instrumental in making this happen. The United States is home to some of the most popular, iconic destinations in existence and is a beacon for visitors from around the world. We couldn’t be more excited to welcome those visitors back and showcase everything our company, industry and country have to offer.”

Saturday expiration

A senior Biden administration official said the mandate expires Saturday at 9:01 p.m. Las Vegas time, saying the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has determined that it’s no longer necessary. The official, speaking Friday on the condition of anonymity to preview the formal announcement, said that the agency would re-evaluate the need for the testing requirement every 90 days and that it could be reinstated if a troubling new variant emerges.

“Today marks another huge step forward for the recovery of inbound air travel and the return of international travel to the United States,” said Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association. “The Biden administration is to be commended for this action, which will welcome back visitors from around the world and accelerate the recovery of the U.S. travel industry.”

Dow said prior to the pandemic, travel was one of the nation’s largest industry exports.

“The lifting of this requirement will enable the industry to lead the way toward a broader U.S. economic and jobs recovery,” he said.

“A new analysis found that repealing the pre-departure testing requirement could bring an additional 5.4 million visitors to the U.S. and an additional $9 billion in travel spending through the remainder of 2022. U.S. Travel and our partners advocated tirelessly for months to ensure this requirement would be lifted, pointing to the monumental scientific advancements that have made it possible for us to reach this point.”

In pre-pandemic 2019, the USTA said 79.4 million foreign travelers came to the United States, spending an estimated $180.9 billion. In 2020, that had shrunk to 19.2 million visitors – 24 percent of 2019 levels – and spending was down to $40.1 billion, or 22 percent of 2019.

Forecast encouraging

The association’s inbound travel forecast predicts 47.9 million travelers in 2022 spending $100.8 billion.

By dropping predeparture testing in June, the USTA said it expects 5.4 million additional visitors and $9 billion in additional spending. It doesn’t project full recovery to prepandemic levels until 2025.

In February, travel and tourism groups argued the testing requirement was obsolete because of the high number of omicron cases already in every state, higher vaccinations rates and new treatments for the virus.

American Hotel & Lodging Association President and CEO Chip Rogers also called out Nevada’s congressional delegation for being helpful in the new policy.

“Today’s announcement is a significant win for hotels and the broader travel industry,” Rogers said. “AHLA consistently called on the administration and Congress to lift this testing requirement, which was out of date and had a chilling effect on inbound international travel to the U.S. Lifting the requirement will make travel easier, facilitating more international visitors and helping hotels continue on the road to recovery, especially as we approach peak travel season this summer.

“Thank you to the Biden administration for lifting the requirement, and to Sens. Masto (D-Nev.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and Rick Scott (R-Fla.) for their leadership in pushing for this critical change.”

“We greatly appreciate the CDC lifting the testing requirement for international travelers,” added Steve Hill, president and CEO of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

“We are especially grateful to Sen. Cortez Masto for her leadership in helping to lift these restrictions, Rep. (Dina)Titus for co-chairing the Congressional Travel and Tourism Caucus and Sen. Rosen for her leadership as chair of the Commerce Subcommittee on Tourism, Trade, and Export Promotion. The entire Nevada delegation, including Reps. Susie Lee, Steven Horsford and Mark Amodei, has played an integral role over the past two years in working with the LVCVA, our resort partners and the U.S. Travel Association to advocate for this critical step forward.”

‘Major victory’

Virginia Valentine of the Nevada Resort Association called removal of the testing program “a major victory” for Nevada’s tourism economy.

“We applaud Sen. Cortez Masto for keeping this issue in the forefront and for being a tenacious advocate on policies that expedite full economic recovery and job growth. International visitors are a key component of Las Vegas’ economy, supporting thousands of jobs and generating millions of dollars in the community as they spend much more than domestic visitors during their stay,” Valentine said. “Removing the testing requirement keeps the U.S. and Las Vegas competitive and is essential to welcoming back the nearly 6 million international visitors who typically visit Las Vegas each year.”

Other experts also weighed in.

Nevada’s entire congressional delegation wrote President Biden on May 16 seeking his help in exempting fully vaccinated foreign travelers from the CDC testing order.

“Our state continues to experience unemployment figures above the national average, so action on your part to help the workers and businesses that rely on visitors to our state is essential to our full economic recovery,” wrote Nevada lawmakers.

The letter was signed by U.S. Sens. Masto and Rosen, both Democrats, as well as U.S. Reps. Titus, Horsford and Lee, also Democrats, and Republican U.S. Rep. Amodei, whose congressional district includes Reno.

In Nevada, “travel and tourism are a key driver of jobs and economic activity,” the lawmakers wrote.

Cortez Masto hailed the CDC action, noting that the continued testing was “burdensome” for Nevada’s economic recovery.

Earlier this week, Rosen chaired a Senate Commerce subcommittee on tourism and trade hearing where witnesses with the Global Business Travel Alliance and the Miami International Airport called for lifting the inbound testing requirement.

A House Homeland Security Committee field hearing at Harry Reid International Airport was held May 24 by Titus to explore ways for federal agencies to improve processing of international travelers at U.S. airports.

“It is critical that we ensure no tourist or visitor is discouraged from traveling in our country because of processing delays or long wait times,” Titus said following the hearing.

Airport happy

Leaders at the airport also were supportive.

“I am confident that with today’s move by the CDC to eliminate the pre-departure COVID-19 testing requirement for arriving foreign travelers, international air traffic into Las Vegas will jump instantly,” said Clark County Department of Aviation Director Rosemary Vassiliadis.

“This is a huge step toward recovery for our community and our nation, and is an action that can be largely credited to the entire Nevada federal delegation and their appreciation for the integral role that aviation plays in our economy.”

Amanda Belarmino, an assistant professor at UNLV’s William F. Harrah College of Hospitality, said lifting the restriction on tests for international travel should have a positive impact for all of Nevada.

“I think it will have more of a positive impact nationwide, however, because travel to Las Vegas may be balanced out by a decrease in domestic travel,” Bellarmino said. “It may have a negative impact on domestic travel as Americans may be more willing to travel internationally if they do not have to take a COVID test. In terms of the timing, it is challenging to say when is the right time to lift the testing requirement, however I would argue that if we can travel domestically without tests then the ban on international travel should have been lifted before now.”

Brendan Bussmann, an industry analyst and founder of Las Vegas-based B Global, said the change was one of the last things impeding both international leisure and business travel.

“It is welcomed news that the ’science’ behind the one-day negative test has been removed to allow travel back to normal after nearly two years of having some level of restriction in place,” he said.

“The U.S. was one of the last countries to have this mandate in place that made it an extra hurdle for those that have been traveling internationally to return to home. While it won’t be overnight that international routes will fill back up to Las Vegas, it is positive news to the industry that this requirement is gone, and hopefully for good.”

Bussmann said the overall effect of the new order is yet to be seen.

“This is welcoming news for the entire travel industry and will provide a long term boost to fill up this segment of business that had yet to return to the destination,” he said. “While yet to be seen how much pent-up demand exists under the geopolitical and economic constraints that exist in the U.S. and around the globe, the ability to travel without this restriction is great news for everyone.”

Gaming industry leaders also were happy with the decision.

“By welcoming back international business and leisure travelers, the American gaming industry and our nation’s hospitality sector can fully recover,” said Bill Miller, president and CEO of the American Gaming Association.

“This move puts the United States on equal footing with other countries and will provide a major boost to our nation’s travel and hospitality industries,” he said.

“The AGA and our members have been vocal proponents of this move for months, and we are thankful for the Nevada delegation and other champions in Congress who continue to support gaming communities across the country. We are grateful to the CDC, all those in the health and science community, and the Biden administration for tackling this enormous challenge and making this a reality.”

More work to be done

But Miller said more can be done to boost travel to the United States.

“We must not forget that more can still be done to return tourism to pre-pandemic levels,” Miller said. “We ask the State Department to continue their work to speed up international visa processing time by investing in additional staff and allowing virtual interviews. Eliminating the testing requirement will undoubtedly open our doors to more international visitors and we should make the process for entry as efficient and accessible as possible.”

Contact Richard N. Velotta at rvelotta@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3893. Follow @RickVelotta on Twitter. Review-Journal staff writer Gary Martin and The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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