by Roger Dow | May 8, 2015

Roger DowWhen most Americans think of “trade,” they think of cars, textiles, agricultural products — basically, things moved in the box containers you see lifted on and off ships in Long Beach, Calif.; Galveston, Texas; or Norfolk, Va.
I’m a hotelier by trade. The association I lead represents hotels and other businesses and organizations with a financial stake in seeing more people travel to and within the United States. Why, I am often asked, does the U.S. Travel Association have an active interest in Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) — the proposal now before Congress that would expedite the U.S.’s international trade agreements?
You can be forgiven for not thinking of travel as a U.S. export, because most people and policymakers don’t — yet. But our economy would be better off if that changed.
Travel, in fact, is already America’s second-largest industry export — $221 billion worth in 2014 alone. That’s because when foreign currency is spent on U.S. goods and services, it counts as an export — even when the transactions happen on U.S. soil, as is the case when foreign travelers come here and spend. While the overall U.S. trade deficit last year was $505 billion, the travel and tourism industry boasted a trade surplus of $74 billion.
The best part? U.S. travel jobs are unexportable; they need to be here in order to serve the travelers who are here.
That’s a big reason why travel supports one out of every nine U.S. jobs. And things are looking better all the time: A record 75 million international visitors entered the U.S. in 2014. The recent growth trend in that figure puts us well ahead of a pace to eclipse 100 million visitors from abroad annually by 2020. And overseas visitors spend an average of $4,300 here per person, per trip. That math isn’t complicated, even for me.
Travel also has the power to do a disproportionate amount of good for overall U.S. economic performance. It is among the best-performing sectors in the wake of the recession, replacing jobs 37 percent faster than the broader economy, and returning to 2007 employment levels in November of 2012 as many other sectors continued to struggle. And while many other industry exports were contracting, travel accounted for 9 percent of the growth in exports in 2014.
But with a couple of policy tweaks, we could be doing even better.
An underappreciated fact is that U.S. destinations and travel businesses directly benefit from free-trade agreements negotiated with other countries. Following the conclusion of agreements with the following nations, travel to the United States increased from Australia (+21 percent), Colombia (+139 percent), Singapore (+50 percent) and South Korea (+67 percent).
Free-trade agreements also contribute to greater international participation at U.S. trade shows and conventions. According to Oxford Economics, international visitors comprise up to 5 percent of total U.S. exhibition meetings. That figure would theoretically rise with expanded trade pacts such as those the Obama administration is actively seeking and which have traditionally enjoyed bipartisan support.
The Trade Promotion Act is a key tool in making that happen. TPA gives the president a pre-approved congressional framework for new trade pacts, allowing them to be negotiated and implemented more quickly. TPA is the critical precursor to long-stalled agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.
Just think: The economic potential of the huge markets in Asia and the European Union could be fully unleashed in a few short months, once TPA is passed.
Congress has granted TPA to all but one U.S. president since Franklin Roosevelt. Why? Trade partnerships, especially in today’s global economy, support jobs and strengthen the economy. The 114th Congress should follow suit and pass TPA today.
Roger Dow is president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association.