Domestic travellers keep US tourism ticking

If you listened to the US Travel Association at the start of the year, you’d think that the country’s travel industry was doomed.

Having commissioned a study by Euromonitor International, the association found that the US was placed 17th out of the top 18 travel market in terms of global competitiveness.

In 2023 it recorded 67 million visitors, still 12 million off the 79 million high recorded pre-Covid in 2019, the association warned a number of factors including weak government representation, lengthy visa interview waits averaging 400 days and around just 36% of US airports using biometric processing to ease security checks were undermining the US as a destination.

Despite the tone of the warning and the issues raised, it has had little impact on typical American domestic travellers who are returning to the skies in serious numbers.

Data shared by aviation analysts OAG shows that of the 726.1 million aircraft seats set to depart US airports this summer season, which runs from the last Sunday of March until the last Saturday night in October, 627.7 million are domestic and represent a considerable increase on both the 584.3 million recorded in 2019 and 614.7 million seats last year.

Domestic destinations

And while the growth represents a return to normal for the US aviation industry, Erin Francis-Cummings, the president and CEO of travel market research firm Future Partners said the most popular domestic destinations for the US traveller in 2024 are once again old favourites.

A survey of about 4,000 Americans conducted in April by the firm revealed New York was the most desired destination for the next year, with 17.1% of respondents choosing it followed by Florida and its theme parks at 15% while Las Vegas came third with 12%.

Francis-Cummings said: “For a while in Covid we saw really strong outdoor destination brands go up in popularity … but last year we saw the return of urban destinations.”

Meanwhile, in the international market OAG data shows there are also nearly 10% more seats, with 98.4 million departing the US this summer season compared to 90.9 million in 2019.

While this capacity growth is to be welcomed, OAG partner John Grant said it needs to be qualified, adding: “The capacity growth we’re seeing is based around the strength of the US dollar.

“But airlines have been juggling what they have to do at the moment; because of the limited flying to Asia they are doing more flying to continental Europe.”

He added flights to Asia have been impacted by the current poor relationship between the US and China, while the blocking off of Russian airspace due to the ongoing war in Ukraine has impacted routes departing the US which fly over the Arctic circle.

As a result OAG data shows US summer seats to North East Asia total 8.1 million in 2024 compared to 10.7 million in 2019, although seat numbers to South and South East Asia are beating the 2019 numbers, albeit at less than 1 million seats each.

In Europe, the Eastern and Central regions remain impacted by the Ukrainian war with 443,504 seats available this summer compared to 982,498 seats in 2019.

European renaissance

This leaves Western Europe as the clear winner from the aviation reshuffle, with 31.1 million seats scheduled for summer 2024, compared to 29.1 million five years ago.

Francis-Cummings said the Future Partners survey revealed US travellers have considerable amounts of money to spend on the trips with $4,500 set aside per person while Millennials are leading the charge as 37.6%, the most of any generation, say they intend to travel abroad in the next year.

Italy remains the most desired European destination, and most popular globally, at 16.9%, followed by the UK with 12.2% and Paris third on 9.1%.

However, while the destinations might remain the same, she added US travellers are keen to visit less well-known areas upon arrival after concerns last summer that some of the most popular destinations are overcrowded.

Instead, travellers are increasingly focusing on visiting dupes, destinations that offer the same experience but with far less hassle, for instance visiting Bologna instead of Venice in Italy.

Francis-Cummings said: “These dupes are cheaper, they’re not as well known but they still offer the same incredible cultural experience.

“These off-the-beaten-path type places are going to grow in popularity because of how much tourism there has been in the last year.”

She added US travellers are also waking up to sustainability issues, particularly among Generation Z, although this is yet to be as bigger concerns as it is for other markets such as in Europe.

If the forecast looks good on the big picture for US travellers, it is being replicated in the country’s travel infrastructure on the ground.

Orlando International Airport executive vice president, chief development officer Vicki Jaramillo said the airport had recently experienced its busiest day to date with 102,064 departing passengers on Saturday, 16 March, during Spring Break 2024.

OAG data shows a total of 19.3 million departing seats scheduled at Orlando for the summer season, 15.6 million for the domestic market and 3.7 million international, three million more than the 16.3 million available during the same period in 2019.

Jaramillo said much of the inbound international market is being driven by Canada and Brazil while business travel bookings are also strong, accounting for up to a quarter of all sales.

However, she added the airport has encountered one of the key problems flagged up by the US Travel Association report – the failure of the US government to keep up with the growth on the ground.

“The thing that’s a challenge for us and many airports at the moment is US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), they’re constraining us and many airports,” Jaramillo said.

“Even though our international traffic has grown by 43% since 2019 we have the same number of officers as 2018 so it’s been a little bit tough.

“I talk to colleagues in other airports and they’re having similar problems with CBP so we’re doing what we can to make noise in Washington to get more officers.”

Whether the situation improves remains to be seen; however, it seems the US Travel Association’s alarm at the start of the year has yet to filter through to US travellers.