After a Florida judge this week struck down the rule mandating that people wear masks on public transportation in the U.S., groups including ASTA and the U.S. Travel Association applauded the move. But it was not the Covid protocol they most wanted to go away.
That distinction belongs to the CDC’s inbound Covid-19 testing requirement, which ASTA recently called “the single biggest barrier” to travel’s recovery.
The Society praised a group of legislators who are pushing to remove the testing requirement. The group is led by Rep. Lou Correa (D-Calif.), who has asked the White House to exempt fully vaccinated travelers from having to provide proof of a negative Covid test before entering the country.
“While we understand the rationale behind the inbound testing order when it was put in place in January 2021, it continues to present a number of challenges to our constituents who must or desire to travel internationally,” the group wrote in a letter to President Biden.
The U.K., EU, Canada, Australia and several Caribbean countries have dropped similar measures requiring international vaccinated travelers to test in order to enter.
The requirement can make Americans skittish to leave the country, knowing they could be stuck overseas if they test positive. It’s also a deterrent to foreign travelers who want to visit the U.S. but are hesitant to plan a trip with the potential for a major snag just before departure.
Eben Peck, ASTA’s executive vice president for advocacy, said that removing the rule would also “supercharge the recovery of the travel agency business,” adding that many Americans have been putting off international travel because of the Covid testing requirement.
One example of how the rules can impact travel intent comes from Europe, where CWT recently released data showing a significant increase in bookings to and from countries that had recently relaxed testing and quarantine requirements.
Five weeks after the U.K. said that it would scrap testing for fully vaccinated travelers, weekly bookings for outbound international travel had increased 115% compared with the week before the announcement, while inbound bookings soared 169%.
CWT said that in Norway, which ended testing for all travelers on Feb. 12, weekly outbound and inbound bookings rose as much as 72% (the week after the announcement) and 67% (three weeks after), respectively.
“We are seeing the highest levels of business travel since the pandemic began, and while traveler health and safety must always remain the number one priority, removing hurdles and uncertainty will be key in achieving a full recovery,” said CEO Michelle McKinney Frymire.
Tori Emerson Barnes, U.S. Travel’s executive vice president of public affairs, said that U.S. Travel continues “to urge the administration to immediately end pre-departure testing for vaccinated inbound international passengers, which discourages travel and provides limited public health benefits.”
Brand USA is the U.S.’s travel-marketing arm and itself does not lobby. But in a recent interview about how to boost the number of international visitors, generally considered to be the most lucrative travel sector, Brand USA CEO Chris Thompson said that it was in “lockstep with our advocacy partners.”
He added, “We’re in favor of anything that improves the situation, and certainly that testing requirement is still something causing some uncertainty and causing some pause in people traveling. We can’t get back to the numbers and the economic impact pre-Covid until all of that is fully relaxed.”
Getting from pandemic to endemic
Travel groups were also pleased with the possible end to the federal mask mandate, although the Justice Department is appealing the Florida judge’s order to void the mandate.
Barnes said it “effectively returns the choice of mask usage on planes and other forms of public transportation to travelers and travel industry workers, a further step toward endemic management of Covid.”
The idea of treating Covid as endemic is increasingly part of the language travel executives have been using in support of dropping pandemic-era travel protocols.
In deciding to stop requiring mask use on their planes — which all major U.S. carriers did the day the judge scrapped the rule — Delta released a statement saying, “We are relieved to see the U.S. mask mandate lift to facilitate global travel as Covid-19 transitions to a more manageable respiratory virus, with better treatments, vaccines and other scientific measures to prevent serious illness.”
Brand USA’s Thompson said that while he still sees a “bumpy road” to the end of the pandemic, it will take “getting to the point where it’s literally endemic, and we’ve learned to live with it and we acknowledge that.”
“In that regard we’re still being patient, because all that’s outside of our control,” he said.
Jamie Biesiada and Robert Silk contributed to this report.
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