Chicago isn’t a foreign tourist magnet in the way of, say, New York City or San Francisco.
Historically, only about 5% of visitors here come from overseas. But Michael Jacobson was nevertheless thrilled this week at the announcement the Biden administration plans to ease coronavirus-related travel restrictions on foreign visitors to the United States.
“It’s been a long time coming; it’s something that, as an industry, we’ve been fighting for for months now,” said Jacobson, president and CEO of the Illinois Hotel & Lodging Association, which represents about 500 properties statewide, including about 150 in Chicago.
Beginning in November, the administration will require all foreign travelers flying to the U.S. to demonstrate proof of vaccination before boarding, as well as proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within three days of flight. The new policy replaces a patchwork of travel restrictions first instituted by President Donald Trump last year and tightened by Biden earlier this year that restrict travel by non-citizens who have in the prior 14 days been in the United Kingdom, European Union, China, India, Iran, Republic of Ireland, Brazil and South Africa.
The pandemic has hit the hotel industry exceptionally hard, Jacobson said, with business travel all but drying up — hence the importance of tourism.
“In the history of our industry nobody has ever experienced what we’ve experienced in terms of losses – and continued loss,” he said. “There’s a perception that things are getting back to normal. You saw a strong summer in Chicago, which was great to see. But we are still nowhere near where we were before the pandemic.”
The pre-COVID-19 occupancy rate for the city’s central business district was about 85% for August 2019, according to data tracking firm STR. It dropped to 21.4% in 2020, and was at 53.3% for the same month this year. August and July are typically the busiest months of the year, Jacobson said.
Statewide, the hotel industry also shed about 20,000 jobs, or about one-third of all employees, Jacobson said.
“A lot of those have come back; a lot of those haven’t,” said Jacobson, echoing a familiar worry among those in the post-lockdown service industry sector.
Jacobson was speaking from a trade show in Las Vegas aimed at promoting tourism to the United States. Employee issues aside, European tour operators he met there were “giddy” Monday at the thought of finally being able to bring customers back to the United States, Jacobson said.
Though foreign visitors to the city may be far fewer than domestic ones, they typically spend more money when they’re here, Jacobson said.
“If you get on a plane to come visit the U.S., you are staying here longer than two or three days,” he said. “They are the ones who are booking the nicest hotel rooms, the nicest cars, booking some very exclusive experiences that just bring more revenue for the tourism industry, but also a lot more tax revenue for the city.”
But given lingering concerns about travel with a pandemic very much still raging in the United States, how much will this week’s announcement help?
“It will make a big difference. There is a lot of pent-up demand. People naturally have concerns about COVID, as they should, and making sure they take the right precautions to be safe when getting on an airplane and coming here,” Jacobson said. “There are people who haven’t seen their family members in 18 months, there are people who haven’t met their grandchildren.”