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U.S. Pandemic Restrictions Remain In Place On International Travelers

NOEL KING, HOST:

Americans are traveling again. But all is not yet well for the country's hotels, airlines and tourist attractions because restrictions on many international travelers are still in place. And there's no sign that's changing anytime soon. Here's NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: In a normal year, the tourists pull in by the busload to Niagara Falls, N.Y. But this year, traffic for one of its biggest attractions is off by about 30% from 2019, the year before the pandemic.

KEVIN KEENAN: It's been rough.

KEITH: Kevin Keenan is a spokesman for Maid of the Mist, a boat ride popular with tour groups. Visitors from all over the world don blue rain ponchos and hop on board to get an up-close view of the powerful falls.

KEENAN: You hear all these different languages being spoken on the boat, which I just find fascinating. But right now, it's a lot of English.

KEITH: The main reason - foreign visitors can't come because of COVID-related travel restrictions, Keenan says.

KEENAN: No Chinese tourists. No tourists from India. And those are two of the biggest markets for Maid of the Mist. And they're not going to come this year, we don't believe. It just doesn't look like it's going to happen.

KEITH: The travel bans were an early line of defense against COVID-19. But, of course, it found its way into the U.S. anyway. New ones were added as time went on and variants popped up. Jennifer Nuzzo is a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

JENNIFER NUZZO: There is always going to be a political inclination to try to keep the virus out and to do so through border closures or travel restrictions. It seems to be the first tendency of political leaders. And I think there's tremendous pressure for them to do that because the costs are probably not felt by the average person.

KEITH: The travel restrictions may slow the spread of the virus or a new variant. But ultimately, she says, experience shows they don't stop it. And there are costs - families kept apart, global commerce slowed, businesses hurt. Las Vegas counts on foreign travelers for about 15% of its visitors and an outsized part of the city's business. Steve Hill is president of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Bureau.

STEVE HILL: International visitors tend to stay longer. They tend to spend more. They tend to be a disproportionately larger component of our meetings and convention business, as well as gaming.

KEITH: Vegas has been helped by a bump in domestic travel. But that likely won't last forever, Hill says.

HILL: Pent-up demand is not a permanent experience.

KEITH: And so the travel industry is pushing the Biden administration to announce at least a roadmap before the summer season slips away. Tori Emerson Barnes is with the U.S. Travel Association.

TORI EMERSON BARNES: We really think that from an economic standpoint, it's imperative that we, at a minimum, start to reopen with countries where we have similar vaccination rates.

KEITH: She says, just from the European Union, U.K. and Canada, the U.S. is losing $1.5 billion a week. And White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki says, while there's no timeline for reopening travel, intergovernmental working groups are sorting through the difficult logistics.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEN PSAKI: We know people want to come here and people want to travel other places. We understand that. But we put these working groups in place so that we can work closely and in partnership with these countries on addressing the public health challenges.

KEITH: Psaki defended the restrictions, saying, they wouldn't still be in place if they didn't think they were keeping Americans safe.

Tamara Keith, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMANCIPATOR'S "BLUE DREAM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.