Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

After the Travel Collapse, Build Tourism Back Better

To bring back jobs and make travel sustainable, Biden should reverse decades of neglect and reestablish a national U.S. tourism policy.

A Navajo man on a horse poses for tourists in Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, Utah, on May 16, 2015.
A Navajo man on a horse poses for tourists in Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, Utah, on May 16, 2015. MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s ambitious goals include strengthening the country’s middle class, making the environment a top priority across the government, and building the economy back better after so many livelihoods have been shattered by the coronavirus pandemic.

A revitalized national tourism policy could be a big part of the solution for all three issues. To get an idea how that could work, take a look at Key West, an island off the southern tip of Florida.

On Nov. 3, when the world’s eyes were fixed on the U.S. presidential election, the voters of Key West passed three landmark measures to dramatically reduce cruise ship traffic docking in their small, historic town. A citizen-led movement successfully argued that years of unregulated big-cruise tourism had taken too great a toll on the environment, public health, local businesses, and the town’s very way of life. By margins as large as 81 percent, the island city voted to reduce the number of ships allowed to dock, ban the largest cruise ships outright, and require clean environmental records of the smaller vessels that will still be allowed to visit the island. Voters were opting for an end to frenzied crowds and polluted water, and in favor of something closer to sustainable or ecotourism. Both the locals and their visitors will be better off this way.

But this vote was about far more than one town’s battle against cruise ships. It’s part of a backlash following many years of government neglect during a phase of relentless growth of tourism. It’s become a truism that modern overtourism has not only overrun, disfigured, and polluted places such as Key West, Barcelona, and Venice, but also spoiled destinations and ruined vacations for many travelers as well.
In real time, Americans saw how travel and tourism is the $1.6-trillion glue holding much of the U.S. economy together.

In the era before the pandemic, the $8 trillion global tourism industry was celebrated for underpinning economies around the world, including that of the United States, where the money spent by foreign visitors accounts for 11 percent of export earnings. (Because the money technically comes in from abroad, spending by visitors is booked as exports.) Those numbers mask the furor at the unacknowledged damage tourism was doing to local life, the environment, and visitors’ ability to appreciate the places they were visiting.

It took the pandemic to bring the issue to a head. The tsunami-like spread of the coronavirus brought the global travel industry to an abrupt halt. The world went from too much tourism to no tourism at all. Lockdowns meant that no one moved, neither across international borders nor even across town. Overnight, we all discovered the contradictory powers of the travel and tourism industry.

In real time, Americans saw how travel and tourism is the $1.6-trillion glue holding much of the U.S. economy together. Yet they also saw how it is a formidable environmental threat that pollutes their air and water and contributes to the climate crisis.

Without tourism, seemingly solid industries such as airlines, hotels, restaurants, and department stores tanked—the list is almost endless. Every U.S. state suffered, but especially states like Hawaii and Nevada, where tourism represents more than 20 percent of the economy. Many livelihoods were lost, and that loss could be forever.

At the same time, with airplanes grounded and many factories shuttered, skies were suddenly blue for weeks and months. People could see horizons; deep into northern India, the Himalayas were visible again. Without tourists crowding the seashores, turtles returned to hatch on sandy beaches from Florida to Brazil. In Malaysia, otters were back in lakes. With cruise ships and pleasure boats moored, the Mediterranean was no longer as murky. In Venice, swans were paddling in the suddenly quiet, clear-watered canals. In Thailand, where all beaches and islands were closed off to tourists and tourist ships, fish and marine mammals multiplied. California shores saw more whales than usual. Without tourism, the environment recovered, at least temporarily. This also raises a big red flag about the effect that the development of travel and tourism has had on climate change.

Government neglect began in 1996, when Newt Gingrich, then the speaker of the House of Representatives, launched a successful effort to eliminate the U.S. Travel and Tourism Administration—with the acquiescence of the administration of then-President Bill Clinton. Gingrich argued that the federal government had no business coordinating or regulating tourism, corresponding to the long-standing Republican philosophy that government is the problem, not the solution.

This couldn’t have been more inane. Government, almost by definition, is at the heart of tourism. The U.S. federal government issues tourist visas, oversees borders, regulates environmental impacts, funds national parks and cultural institutions that draw tourists, and promotes tourism and cultural exchanges as one of the country’s soft-power assets. Individual states depend on the federal government in all things tourism.

Gingrich’s timing came at the worst possible moment for U.S. tourism. The 1990s marked the start of globalization, which turned travel and tourism into the global juggernaut it is today, capable of making or breaking countries and cultures. With open borders, rising incomes, and technological advances, the number of international trips exploded from some 500 million annual trips in 1996 to over 1 billion 20 years later.

Yet at this precise moment, the U.S. government no longer recognized tourism as a significant issue. Clinton had already withdrawn the United States from the United Nations World Tourism Organization in 1995. In the following years, without a national policy, tourism became Balkanized, with no overall direction and only piecemeal regulation. Local watchdogs and civic groups pushed for green, smart, or sustainable tourism, but with little success. Things were so disorganized that representatives of the U.S. tourism industry had to implore the George W. Bush administration just to create a simple website promoting tourism to the United States.

The incoming Biden administration now has a rare window of opportunity to reverse this anti-government stance, bring tourism back into the policy mix, and make it a 21st-century soft-power, environmental, and economic asset.

Elizabeth Becker is the author of Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism and a former international economic correspondent at the New York Times.