Since terrorist attacks in 2001, the government has made it far more difficult for foreigners to travel to the U.S., costing the nation tens of billions in lost revenue and hundreds of thousands of jobs, according to J.W. Marriott, Jr., the longtime CEO of Marriott International Inc.
“We’ve become a risk-averse country,” said Marriott, speaking at an event in Washington on Tuesday on how to restore U.S. economic growth. Marriott manages about 3,500 hotels around the world, with about 80% still in the U.S.
The 78-year-old executive acknowledged the necessity of tighter security measures, but he said the U.S. does a poor job in promoting travel and tourism, suffers from bureaucratic malaise and is not very hospitable.
Nor does he expect much change anytime soon. Marriott said he has met repeatedly with officials at the State Department and other government agencies, but they have been largely unresponsive.
“We keep talking and they look at us and say, ‘We’re protecting the country,’ ” Marriott said.
Although Congress passed a travel promotion act earlier this year, Marriott said neither party has shown great interest in helping the tourism and travel industry. He also faulted the Obama White House for its reluctance to help U.S. companies.
“This administration doesn’t have anyone with business experience,” he said.
The cost of such inattention, Marriott said, is high since travel and tourism accounts for about 8% of all U.S. exports. The U.S. lost around $450 billion in exports and about 440,000 jobs over the past 10 years — what Marriott called the lost decade — because of a plunge in foreign travel.
Instead, the money went to other countries where travel restrictions are less burdensome and customs officials more helpful. The U.S. makes people from most countries wait at least 90 days for a visa and also requires a personal interview from short-handed Embassy staff. Other places such as Europe make it much easier for people to visit even while maintaining tight security procedures.
“More Chinese visited Paris last year than the U.S.,” noted Marriott, who said each Chinese traveler spends about $7,000 per U.S. visit compared to $1,200 for each domestic traveler.
By boosting tourism and travel by just 10% annually, the nation could add 100,000 jobs a year, Marriott said. He also argued that foreigners who visit the U.S. leave with a more positive view, helping to improve relations with other countries.
“This is really low-hanging fruit,” he said.
Marriott said Democrats and Republicans have to work harder to help businesses if the U.S. wants to resume global economic leadership. He said lawmakers should lower corporate taxes, pass more free-trade deals, give more Visas to talented foreign students, streamline regulations and provide permanent incentives for research and investment, among other things.
Above all else, he said, businesses need more certainty about government policy before they’ll have the courage and confidence to start investing heavily again. He pointed to the recently passed health-care law as one example of legislation that has clouded the ability of companies to plan for the future because of unknown costs.
“Businesses are waiting for government to say: here is the green light.”