President Donald Trump started his term by enacting one travel ban and ended it by ordering that another one be lifted — actions that his successor quickly dismantled or vowed to block.
Travel industry experts are watching to see what else President Biden’s administration has in store for travelers, from potentially easing restrictions on trips to Cuba to instituting mask requirements to (eventually) reversing a slide in international tourism.
Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst at Atmosphere Research Group, said he expects the administration’s dual focus on the pandemic and economic crisis will ultimately help people start traveling again.
“Everything that we do — getting more people vaccinated and getting them vaccinated faster, whatever types of financial support and stimulus the administration decides to do … whatever they do to help get the economy going — will inevitably have a ripple effect to benefit travel and transportation,” he said.
Biden tackled some travel-related issues on Wednesday, his first day in office. Others are expected to follow soon. And still other changes will probably be a much lower priority.
Trump travel ban
A week after his inauguration, Trump introduced a travel ban on foreign nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries. That order — derided by critics as a “Muslim ban” — evolved after legal fights but still applied to certain people from Tanzania, Sudan and Venezuela; immigrants from Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar and Nigeria and most people from Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria and Yemen.
Biden signed a proclamation ending the bans on Wednesday.
“Those actions are a stain on our national conscience and are inconsistent with our long history of welcoming people of all faiths and no faith at all,” the proclamation said.
He wrote that Trump’s bans were “a moral blight” that had jeopardized the country’s alliances.
“And they have separated loved ones, inflicting pain that will ripple for years to come,” the proclamation said. “They are just plain wrong.”
In an executive order Wednesday, Biden mandated mask-wearing and physical distancing by anyone in federal buildings and on federal lands. The National Park Service has not responded to a question about whether that applies at national parks.
During the campaign, Biden said he would also require mask compliance on forms of interstate transportation. He handed down that order — applying to airports and many planes, ships, trains, intercity buses and forms of public transportation — on Thursday.
“Science-based public health measures are critical to preventing the spread of [covid-19] by travelers within the United States and those who enter the country from abroad,” the order says.
Airlines and flight attendants have said they are in favor of a mask mandate, which would add heft to their existing policies. But the Trump White House blocked an order that would have required masks on public transportation, and the Transportation Department rejected a petition asking for a mask mandate.
“Airlines have had their own policies, but without the teeth of a federal law, the flight attendants had very little recourse against passengers who said, ‘I don’t want to wear a mask,’” Harteveldt said.
Coronavirus travel restrictions
Trump said on Monday that he would remove travel restrictions that applied to much of Europe, the United Kingdom, Ireland and Brazil, effective Jan. 26. That’s when an order by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention goes into effect requiring proof of a negative coronavirus test or recovery from the virus to fly to the United States.
Trump called the testing requirement and easing of restrictions “the best way to continue protecting Americans from covid-19 while enabling travel to resume safely.”
The incoming Biden administration disagreed. Jen Psaki, who is now White House press secretary, said Monday in a tweet that it was no time to lift restrictions on international travel.
“In fact, we plan to strengthen public health measures around international travel to further mitigate the spread of covid-19,” she wrote.
Thursday’s executive order also said that travelers to the United States would have to self-quarantine after they arrive, though it did not include detailed instructions. It’s not yet clear whether other measures could be in store.
Before the pandemic, the United States was already seeing an alarming trend: Global tourism was growing, but the number of people coming to the country was not.
In 2019, about 79.3 million people came to the United States from international destinations, according to data from the National Travel and Tourism Office. That’s a drop of roughly 500,000 from the previous year. And 2020, of course, saw visitation plummet as the pandemic grounded most travel.
Tori Emerson Barnes, executive vice president of public affairs and policy at the U.S. Travel Association, said Biden’s standing in the world could help position the country better to encourage more visitors when the time is right.
“Once we can reopen travel in a more robust fashion and reopen the international borders, I think Biden’s expertise and experience in working closely with governments across the globe will be an important component to be able to welcome back international visitors,” she said, “which is something we really haven’t seen, that welcoming of international visitors in quite some time, not just as a result of the pandemic.”
Travel to Cuba
Americans were able to travel much more easily to Cuba starting in 2016, after President Barack Obama reestablished diplomatic relations and eased restrictions around how travelers could visit. Trump cracked back down in 2019, narrowing the legal avenues for U.S. citizens to go, what they could do and where they could stay. The administration continued to add restrictions into late last year, and it designated Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism just this month.
During the campaign, Biden called Americans “the best ambassadors for freedom” in Cuba and said he would get rid of the “failed Trump policies that inflicted harm on Cubans and their families.” It’s not clear exactly what that will mean for Americans who want to visit the island, but policy experts and travel companies expect an easier path.
Collin Laverty, president of Cuba Educational Travel, said he expects an expansion of travel from the Biden administration — and plenty of demand from travelers, once it’s safe to go.
“I think there will be a lot of ways to legally travel, and there will be more accessible information so you feel comfortable that it’s legal,” he said.
María José Espinosa Carrillo, interim president of the Engage Cuba coalition, which works to end the travel and trade embargo on Cuba, said she is expecting a new policy of engagement that will serve both U.S. interests and help the Cuban people.
“I do think it’s clear that the policy of hostility toward Cuba has outlived whatever usefulness it might have had in the past,” she said.
Biden has famously commuted by train for decades, traveling between D.C. and Delaware to be with his family when he was a senator. And the railroad could use a fan now: Amtrak chief executive William J. Flynn told lawmakers that the railroad needed almost $5 billion in federal aid because of pandemic-related losses.
During the campaign, Biden promised a “rail revolution” that would cut pollution, provide jobs, cut commute times and encourage investment in communities.
“Biden will make sure that America has the cleanest, safest, and fastest rail system in the world — for both passengers and freight,” his campaign website says.
Harteveldt said he will be curious to see what kind of support the administration provides to the railroad.
“Amtrak has always had to fight for funds; it’s been very, very tough,” he said. “So will a Biden administration be more supportive of Amtrak again given [his] regular use of Amtrak commuting back and forth throughout his career?”