After years of travel restrictions, sparsely available flights and reduced demand, the United States is completely back in business. By the end of 2024, the US expects to see more seats for sale on arriving international flights than in 2019. And by 2025, the number of passengers filling those seats should also be back to the norm.

From some countries, that’s already true. Arrivals from India, for instance, are already back to pre-pandemic levels. Not even the hassle of a US visa is stopping these travellers!

For Aussie citizens – who can generally visit using an ESTA – passenger numbers will return to 2019 levels by next year. Of course, the absence of Virgin Australia from Los Angeles is one factor towards today’s reduced passenger numbers. The same can be said of Hawaiian Airlines’ suspended Brisbane-Honolulu route.

But other airlines are stepping in with new services. Among them are flights from Melbourne and Brisbane to Dallas on Qantas and American Airlines, respectively. In addition, new services from Brisbane aboard both Delta and United – neither of which served Brisbane pre-COVID.

Brand USA President and CEO Chris Thompson shares more at this year’s invitation-only IPW conference in Los Angeles.

Chris Thompson at a press conference in the United States
Chris Thompson provides an update at IPW 2024. [Image courtesy of Brandon Ogden/Brand USA]
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Where is demand sitting right now?

‘In 2020, our world came to a halt,’ Thompson says soberingly. ‘Travel, as we know it, was literally shut down. Our borders were closed – and we, as brand USA … we had to scale back into a state of readiness, wondering when we were ever going to get out of it.’

As of 2019, the United States welcomed 79 million visitors annually – an all-time record. Fast-forward to 2023 though, and that figure still wasn’t back on par to pre-COVID. In fact, with 67 million visitors to the US in 2023, the country was only back to 2012 levels of inbound travellers.

Things look more promising for the country’s 2025 projections. That’s when the US expects to return to 79 million visitors annually. And as travel continues to surge, that’s projected to climb to 90 million visitors by 2027 – a level of inbound travel the US has never seen before.

But how about those travellers the US has already lured back – or to visit the States for the first time? While the US may not yet be back to its previous record, 67 million visitors is still impressive. This alone accounts for 5% of all worldwide international travel in 2023. And by plane particularly, that’s 16% of all international air arrivals.

‘Those visitors spent US$213 billion on travel and tourism-related activities throughout the country, representing 28% increase over last year. Spending in the United States by international visitors is approximately US$660 million a day,’ Thompson elaborates. By 2027, those ‘90 million visitors … will spend US$279 billion.’

Is cost a barrier in travelling to the United States?

While connectivity is improving and travellers are itching to get back to things, there’s no two ways around it. A journey to the United States is expensive, especially from Australia. Long flights can mean pricey fares – and that’s just getting there.

Once on land, travellers will really notice the pinch of the current exchange rates. At the time of writing, AU$1 only buys US$0.66. Or, to put it another way, every US$1 spent really costs AU$1.51. Mix in things like high interest rates back home and cost-of-living pressures more broadly, and for some, travel becomes harder. I ask Thompson whether these factors are softening demand from Australia.

‘The economic challenges aren’t unique to us. It’s actually a worldwide phenomenon,’ he shares. But ‘it’s proved to be the case that coming out of COVID, travel went from being a nicety to a necessity. It’s no secret that following the pandemic, traveller behaviour has changed. And the things that they are looking for in travel destinations have also changed. You can have any experience in the US anywhere else in the world … but you only have our version of it here. And how you feel when you’re here experiencing it here in the USA is the reason it makes us very aspirational.’

Chris Thompson addressing the room
It’s a party in the USA. [Photo by Chris Chamberlin for Point Hacks]

‘So, long-winded answer your question, so far it hasn’t,’ Thompson says of the impact of exchange rates and cost of living pressures. ‘It’s certainly been in the consideration set, but so far, it hasn’t seemed to impede demand as much as you might’ve thought about.’

Also read: Should you tip at airport lounges in the United States?

Feature image courtesy of Jake Blucker/Unsplash. Chris Chamberlin attended IPW 2024 in Los Angeles as a guest of U.S. Travel Association.

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Travel to the USA inches back to pre-pandemic levels was last modified: May 10th, 2024 by Chris Chamberlin