The Wall Street Journal: U.S. Borders Are Again Open to International Travelers. Here’s What It Means for Tourist Hubs.


November 12, 2021 8:00 AM


Tourism leaders at popular U.S. tourist destinations have let out a giant, collective cheer. As of this week, they can count on visitors from foreign countries with restrictions lifting.


But even with citizens from 33 countries able to visit the States again, tourism experts are tempering that excitement with the warning that a full recovery for the travel sector will likely take years.


“It’s just not like the lights turn on, and all of a sudden everyone’s back,” says Chris Heywood, executive vice president at NYC & Company, the city’s official tourism organization.


As of Monday, tourists from the previously restricted countries can travel to the U.S., with most arrivals being required to show proof of full vaccination and a negative Covid-19 test. The countries formerly on the banned list, including the U.K. and Brazil, made up 53% of all overseas visitors to the U.S. in 2019, according to the U.S. Travel Association.


New York is the top U.S. destination for international tourist bookings, followed by Miami, Los Angeles, Orlando, and San Francisco, according to Travelport, a global technology company.


In many cities, international travelers make up a large share of tourism spending because they often stay longer and shop more than domestic tourists, tourism agency leaders say. Tourists to New York spent a record $47.4 billion in 2019, with about 45% coming from international visitors, according to an economic study from research firm Tourism Economics. In 2021, tourism spending is expected to reach about $24 billion, which reflects a decrease in both business and international travel, Mr. Heywood says.


The return of international travelers will provide a boost to institutions that rely on them. Before the pandemic, approximately 64% of visitors to the Empire State Building Observatory were international travelers, according to surveys conducted in 2019.


From July to September this year, average visitation was at 24% of the comparable period in 2019, according to a recent earnings presentation from the Empire State Realty Trust. It is predicted to increase to 60% of comparable 2019 levels in December, the presentation says, and to 90% in the third quarter of 2022.


Ines Huidobro, 15 years old, and her cousin, Isabel De Los Rios, 23, waited outside the Empire State Building on Wednesday as a steady stream of tourists went inside for timed-ticketed entry. The pair traveled from Madrid on Monday with family to mark the anniversary of their grandfather’s death. They threw flowers in the Hudson River then came to view the observatory and enjoy the view overlooking the city.


Cultural institutions are eager to have international visitors back. Before the pandemic, about one-third of visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York were international, a spokesman says, and a strong day saw 20,000 visitors. Now, the museum has a reservation system and about 10,000 visitors on a weekend day, primarily from the U.S., he says.


Although international travel will boost New York’s lodging reservations, it won’t solve everything for those in the tourism industry, says Vijay Dandapani, president and chief executive officer of the Hotel Association of New York City. The revenue per available room, an industry metric known as RevPAR, in recent days was $160 and citywide occupancy was 66%, he says. In October 2019, RevPAR was $267, he says.


Mr. Dandapani says international travelers will likely help occupancy tick up a few percentage points this week, but more meaningful change will come when international and domestic business travel picks up.


The lack of Chinese tourists, who can be subject to strict quarantine rules upon returning home, depending on the region, is also affecting the bottom line. International flights to and from China are operating at a fraction of their pre-pandemic schedule. Chinese tourists spend the most on average when they visit the city, at about $3,000 a person, Mr. Dandapani says.


Cities say the boost from international tourism will help them bring back workers in the tourism industry. In Los Angeles County, more than 544,000 people were employed in tourism-related careers before the pandemic, according to Adam Burke, president and CEO of Los Angeles Tourism. Over one in three jobs were lost during the pandemic, he says—but more than 100,000 jobs have been recovered year over year. “With the return of international [travel], we’re hoping to get back to full employment over the next 12 to 18 months,” Mr. Burke says.


The Getty museums in Los Angeles County have seen an immediate increase in visits from international tourists in the days since the border reopened, based on vaccination checks when guests enter, a spokeswoman says. Visitor-services employees estimated at least 20% of guests were presenting international vaccine credentials, from countries including Sweden and France, she says.


This year, international tourists’ spending in Los Angeles County will amount to about $4 billion, Mr. Burke says. In 2019, international tourists spent $11.6 billion. Los Angeles expects a strong recovery in visits by Japanese and South Korean tourists by the middle of next year, he says.


In the shorter term, expect crowds to increase in tourist hubs like Orlando. From October to November, airlines are adding 40,000 international seats there, and an additional 88,000 international seats from November to December, says Casandra Matej, president and CEO of Visit Orlando. But recovery will take time. In 2019, Orlando welcomed about 6.5 million international visitors, and forecasts 4.2 million for 2022.


Large events like conventions also give cities reason for optimism. Currently, of the tens of thousands of registrants for CES, the world’s largest consumer-electronics exhibition, 25% are international, according to the Consumer Technology Association, which owns and produces the show, which will be held in Las Vegas in January. The show went virtual during the pandemic, but in past years about one-third of attendees have been international.