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Rethinking Your Comp Set

An oft-used phrase these days, “nothing is the same,” is nowhere as applicable as in the travel industry! Among the many changes is the flow of U.S. residents traveling to international destinations to the point that U.S. outbound now exceeds inbound international volume. If a domestic destination still thinks it is competing with neighboring or comparable U.S. destinations for U.S. visitors, think again. The new competition is international countries.

An example to illustrate this point: Having recently completed a destination visitor impact study, the client was surprised to see 2022 volume and spending well below 2018, when this study was last conducted, especially as the DMO had launched a large regional marketing program earlier in 2022. In reviewing the results to explain what happened, research reflects a shifting trend.

We know COVID rendered most of 2020 the low point when the travel essentially shut down. As the industry reopened in 2021, travel slowly and steadily rebounded with U.S. travelers mainly taking regional auto trips, glad to be away from home, just not too far at that point. By 2022 the lid blew off the kettle - U.S. travelers wanted to really travel, strongly upping foreign trip volume from 48.7 million in 2021 to 80.7 million in 2022, and expected to top a record 100 million in 2023.

It seemed to me that by 2022 many of the destination’s regional visitors, who drove 2021 volume, are now traveling outside the U.S. Visitors who were confined to mainly regional trips during the Covid pandemic, were venturing outside the U.S. This strong and continuing rise in outbound U.S. travel, has led us to the conclusion that U.S. destinations are now competing with international destinations for U.S. visitors. Data to support this include:

  • According to a Pew travel study (2021) 71% of U.S. adults have (ever) been on a trip out of the United States.

  • In 2022 the 80.7 million outbound U.S. trips exceeded the number of international inbound arrivals at 51.8 million.

  • Outbound volume has exceeded inbound over the past seven years and expected to continue for the next few years.

  • For the first six months of 2023 U.S. outbound continued to outpace inbound international visitation, and as of June is 31.5% higher than through June, 2022, and on pace to set a new record exceeding 2019, as shown in the graph. (NTTO;; TAG 2023 projection for outbound).

That U.S. outbound volume is higher than inbound has been the case each year since at least 2017, and the lines in the graph show the outbound trend is steady while inbound has decreased more over this seven-year period. Inbound international volume reflects its slower post-pandemic recovery, due to its own set of well-documented limiting factors including less favorable international currency exchange rates, high costs for U.S. lodging, airfare and other items, visa wait times, and still limited inbound air service from many popular countries, especially the Asian Pacific region. However, in absolute numbers more U.S. residents are traveling outside the U.S. and have been since 2019:

Where is This Heading?

According to Reuters more than one-in-five Americans plan on vacationing in a foreign country, the highest share ever recorded, even as overall consumer confidence was dragged down by worsening inflation expectations in August. Conference Board data published in August 2023, revealed that 21.8% of Americans intend on visiting a foreign country in the next six months, up from 17.7% in June.

Where Americans are traveling points up the potential competitive set for U.S. destinations:

  1. Paris, France

  2. London, United Kingdom

  3. Cancun, Mexico

  4. Dubai, United Arab Emirates

  5. Rome, Italy

  6. Dublin, Ireland

  7. Tokyo, Japan

  8. Barcelona, Spain

  9. Amsterdam, Netherlands

  10. Mexico City, Mexico

The reasons why so many people are choosing to travel outside the U.S. are not singular or clear with many factors at play such as, pent up demand, seeing new places, more competitive travel costs outside the U.S. both relative to the U.S. dollar and actual lower costs, being attracted from social media coverage, and many other reasons.

TAG plans to explore this phenomenon with a new survey on U.S. outbound travelers focused on uncovering travel motivations, behaviors, and demographics, which can be beneficial and useful for understanding the competitive forces driving U.S. visitors out of the country, assessing travel intent to visit within the U.S. and other countries, and destination, lodging and air service demand planning and marketing.


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