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Travel and Tourism: Small Investments, Big Returns

by Edward Alden
September 23, 2013

A traveler has his fingerprints scanned at the international travel entry point at JFK International Airport in New York on March 25, 2008 (Shannon Stapleton/Courtesy Reuters). A traveler has his fingerprints scanned at the international travel entry point at JFK International Airport in New York on March 25, 2008 (Shannon Stapleton/Courtesy Reuters).

Whenever I fly back from a trip outside the country, I’m always relieved to be carrying a U.S. passport, because the customs and immigration inspection lines for those who are not Americans or permanent residents always look an awful lot longer. A new report out last week shows just how long those lines sometimes are.

In a continuation of what has become an encouraging trend of making more of its data available to the public, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) released to the U.S. Travel Association data on passenger wait times at five of the biggest gateway airports in the United States – Chicago O’Hare, Washington Dulles, Miami, New York JFK, and Los Angeles. The good news is that average wait times at most of the airports were less than 30 minutes (though the data includes both citizens and non-citizens, and the latter generally face longer waits). The bad news is that wait times often spike to an hour or more. At the worst airport – New York JFK – average waits were more than 30 minutes in 10 of the 12 months from June 2012 to May 2013, and more than 180,000 people endured waits of two hours or more, presumably causing many of them to miss connecting flights.

Tourism is one of the biggest businesses in the United States, adding $168 billion on the plus side to the U.S. current account balance last year. But it’s a competitive one: travelers have many choices, and increasingly they have chosen places other than the United States. The U.S. share of global long haul travel fell from 17 percent in 2000 to just under 13 percent last year, which adds up to almost 100 million potential visitors lost and hundreds of billions in spending. And there is no question that long wait times and other travel hassles play a role – a new survey that accompanies the report found that nearly half of overseas travelers avoid trips to the United States because of the difficult entry process. Almost two-thirds said that getting rid of long lines and wait times would make the United States a more attractive destination.

None of this is particularly the fault of CBP, nor the Obama administration which has made promoting tourism a high priority. CBP has been proactive in encouraging travelers to enroll in Global Entry and other trusted traveler programs that reduce wait times, though much more could still be done. And the vital post-9/11 security improvements, including the U.S.-VISIT system for taking fingerprints from arriving visitors, has been implemented and expanded with minimal disruption.

This is one of those cases where more bodies would make a big difference. A report earlier this year out of the University of Southern California, which was based on detailed economic analysis of wait time data, found each additional CBP officer hired at one of the 33 airports that receive international passengers would generate $2 million in additional economic activity annually for the United States, and create more than 30 other spin-off jobs. The estimated annual cost for each new officer, including recruitment, training, salary and benefits, is just $108,000 per yer. That’s an extraordinary return on investment by any measure. (Full disclosure – the lead author of that study, Bryan Roberts, was my co-author along with John Whitley on our recent study of the effectiveness of border enforcement in reducing illegal migration).

The Senate immigration reform bill, which is now languishing in the Republican-led House, has it backwards on this issue. The bill would add nearly 20,000 Border Patrol agents to prevent illegal entry across the land borders, even though the number of people trying to sneak across the border is just a third of what it was a decade ago. For the legal entry ports, the bill would authorize just 3,500 more officers even though overseas travel to the United States is expected to grow by 50 percent over the next decade. A more sensible division would pay huge economic returns.

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