Bookings on rise with U.S. soon to welcome visitors

The upcoming reopening of U.S. borders to foreign visitors on Nov. 8 has many in the U.S. travel industry giddy with expectation.

“I would describe the mood as complete elation,” said Fred Dixon, CEO of NYC & Company. “We’ve seen bookings go up almost immediately.”

He added: “Our most popular season is in front of us, with the Christmas holidays, and we expect immediate short-term gains in New York.” 

Large markets, like New York, which generally draw the largest share of foreign visitation, can expect the most benefit from the change. And even with the reopening, some of the anticipated impacts, especially for inbound leisure travel, likely won’t come to fruition until the spring and summer. 

“You may see a little bit of a pause as you get into the January/February time frame, but I think spring and summer is going to be another tick back up at an even higher level,” Delta CEO Ed Bastian said during the airline’s Q3 earnings call.

The reopening will replace the existing U.S. entry ban for visitors from 33 countries, including Brazil, China, India and most of Europe, with a requirement that visitors from all countries be vaccinated. Exceptions will be made for children under 18 and for individuals arriving from countries with a vaccination rate below 10% due to unavailability of vaccines. 

Airlines enjoyed an immediate surge of international bookings in the wake of the Biden administration’s Sept. 20 announcement that the border would reopen in early November. 

In fact, ARC data shows that inbound U.S. bookings increased dramatically from key European origination points beginning just before the official announcement, as news reports about the anticipated change began circulating. 
And the strong bookings have continued since. 

For example, during the week of Sept. 19, inbound bookings from the U.K. jumped to 59% of the 2019 level, compared with just 19% of the 2019 level a week earlier. For the week ending Oct. 10, the last for which ARC had compiled data as of press time, bookings from the U.K. to the U.S. were 65% of the 2109 level. 

The travel data compiler ForwardKeys said a second bounce followed the Biden administration’s Oct. 15 announcement of the specific Nov. 8 reopening date, including a 100% week-over-week surge in U.S. tickets issued from Brazil and a 26% week-over-week jump in inbound bookings from the EU. 

Cruise lines benefit

Some cruise lines have also enjoyed a quick boost. 

Geneva-based MSC Cruises, which has three ships sailing from Florida this winter, said that about 30% of its guests booked on those ships this year are coming from abroad and that it has already seen an increase in international bookings since the travel ban lift was announced. MSC said it expected those numbers will grow as people plan holiday vacations. 

“The Caribbean is a popular destination for our guests from across Europe and other regions of the world, particularly during the winter,” said Gianni Onorato, CEO of MSC. “This news means that the many guests who are already booked to sail with us out of North America can now have their cruise vacation fully confirmed.”

Holland America Line, which sources about 10% to 14% of its guests internationally in a normal year, said that like MSC, the change will mean international guests already booked on its on cruises from the U.S. departing after Nov. 8 do not have to be rebooked. It said it would now market more aggressively to its international markets on shorter-term cruises. 

The impact on big cities

Landside, U.S. urban gateway markets, such as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, rely the most on international travel. 

During Hilton’s third-quarter earnings call on Oct. 26, CEO Chris Nassetta said that he expected to see the biggest impact from reopening to international travelers in the largest 25 markets. “The big cities that historically depend on 20% of business coming from inbound international travel have had zero and starting next week or the week after, the floodgates will open,” he said. 

In New York, international travel makes up 20% of all visitors in a typical year but accounts for 50% of tourism spending and 50% of hotel room nights. 

In the U.K., New York’s top international market, NYC & Company has been running a “New York City Misses You” campaign during the pause in international travel. But after the initial announcement from the White House, the campaign became “New York City Is Ready for You,” and it will switch to “It’s Time for New York City” to mark the official reopening. 

In South Florida, travelers from abroad are even more vital to the hospitality industry. Pre-Covid, approximately 30% of visitors to Greater Miami and Miami Beach came from international destinations. 

David Whitaker, CEO of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau, said that many of its in-market tour operators have reported brisk sales, and local hotels that specialize in inbound guests have reported advance bookings. 

He said it was “exciting to already see the anticipation and impact.”

Airlines tread cautiously on capacity

Even with the bullishness, however, airlines have largely been restrained in terms of international capacity growth, at least for now, as they focus instead on boosting low load factors and on increasing yields.

Combined, American, Delta and United have increased their scheduled international seat capacity by just 4.3% in November compared with October, according to the flight data provider OAG. Including international carriers, seat capacity for U.S. international flying is scheduled to be up 5.7% in November compared with October but still 28.1% below the November 2019 level.

Big boosts, though, have been scheduled for November by select airlines, including Canada’s WestJet, which plans to increase its U.S. seat capacity in November by 49.5% compared with October, and British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, which combined will bump their U.S.-U.K. seat capacity by 50% month over month.

Middle-term plans, however, are more aggressive, as airlines look ahead to a new surge of pent-up demand for the peak 2022 tourist season. United, most notably, has said it will fly its largest international schedule ever next year, boosting capacity by 10% compared with 2019. 

The inbound market for Canadian tourists could also see a new boost if the Canadian government eventually lifts its warning against all cruise travel. 

“Although Canadians are able to cruise from an American port, there may be some hesitation to sail until Canada lifts that warning,” Nexion Travel Group-Canada president Mike Foster said.

Johanna Jainchill and Cheryl Rosen contributed to this report.

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