More than one and a half years after the United States closed its borders to international travelers from large parts of the world, the country is easing pandemic-related travel restrictions on Monday, opening up to fully vaccinated travelers from dozens of countries. Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic halted international travel to the U.S. in the spring of 2020, millions of people separated from friends and family have been waiting for this day, and U.S. airlines have reported a surge in bookings after the new rules were announced last month.
Aside from the obvious benefits of people finally being able to reunite with their loved-ones, the resumption of international travel is also a major milestone in the economic recovery from COVID-19. After all, international tourism is a large contributor to U.S. exports, supporting millions of jobs across several sectors. According to the International Trade Administration, international visitors spent $233.5 billion in the U.S. in 2019, accounting for 9.2 percent of all U.S. exports and 26.7 percent of U.S. services exports.
Prior to the pandemic, the U.S. would welcome between 70 and 80 million international visitors per year, with travel activity usually peaking in the summer months of July and August. In 2020, the number of visitors dropped below 20 million, as most non-essential travel was halted for large parts of the year. As the following chart shows, international arrivals gradually picked up over the past one and a half years, but remained far below pre-pandemic levels until now. In July 2021, which is the most recent available figure including arrivals from Mexico and Canada, international arrivals were still 74 percent short of the July 2019 total, illustrating the long climb back from the pandemic travel lull.