The government’s ban on non-essential travel not only is harming international collaboration and local economies around the nation, many claim it’s hurting scientific progress as well.
And it has led an unlikely group in Colorado Springs to pledge to work for a more diverse local economy. This time, it’s the Convention and Visitors Bureau.
By the numbers
In 2011, government travel directly supported:
58,700 food services and restaurant jobs
48,400 hotel jobs
31,500 meeting management support jobs
1,100 jobs in software, audio, and video media
“The travel ban certainly has highlighted that we need to diversify our meeting and convention business,” said Chelsy Murphy, director of communications at the CVB. “We need to get different kinds of conferences here. But we also view it as an opportunity to let government meeting planners know we are a lower-cost option to some of the first-tier cities like Los Angeles or Denver.”
The travel ban was instituted across the federal government once sequestration went into effect in March. Cutting trillions from the federal budget in years ahead ended nearly all national and international travel for scientists from NASA, the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation and other groups.
Military scientists and researchers also aren’t exempt; $162 million has been cut from next year’s military travel budget. Earlier this year, the travel ban forced the cancellation of the 2013 Military Health System Conference, an annual training event for thousands of military health personnel across all the military branches.
That’s a shame, says Space Foundation Executive Director Elliot Pulham, because the conferences aren’t vacations.
“There are ideas that get exchanged, new collaborations, thoughts on how to do things better,” he said. “And that’s not getting done. There’s a huge scientific loss from this travel ban.
“Conferences and collaborations are needed, particularly in high-tech fields where things are changing rapidly. This could set us back significantly.”
Pulham says the Space Foundation is lobbying to convince agencies and Congress to ease travel restrictions.
“It’s overkill, over-reaching, it lacks common sense,” he said. “We’re working to see if they can’t use some common sense, instead of having these across-the-board bans that don’t make any sense at all and harm research and investigation.”
Pulham has experienced the travel ban’s effect firsthand, as has the rest of Colorado Springs. NASA pulled out of the annual Space Symposium at The Broadmoor this year, and only local military officials from the 21st Space Command attended. When NASA announced it wouldn’t attend, so did a delegation from Romania, who wanted to collaborate with the United States.
“And they didn’t get that meeting, that face-to-face collaboration,” Pulham said. “The French delegation brought two members of Parliament, solely to meet with U.S. government officials. Who knows what could have come from those meetings? But they didn’t happen.”
Colorado Springs hotels aren’t immune from the travel ban, Murphy says.
“Occupancy is down about 2 percent from last year, according to the latest (Rocky Mountain) lodging report, which doesn’t include our resort properties,” she said. “And some of that could be from the government travel ban. We know that our resorts — Cheyenne Mountain Resort and The Broadmoor — had a couple weekends where they were sold out, so we don’t think our leisure travel is really suffering. But this is a problem around the nation, and it’s certainly a problem here.”
The U.S. Travel Association says more is at stake than just a few empty hotel rooms. According to the group, research has found that across-the-board cancellations offer only short-term savings.
For instance, it says the government’s cancellation of the health conference ultimately cost taxpayers.
“What was lost: the cost savings and efficiencies of bringing all branches of the military under one roof where they can work together to streamline processes, eliminate redundancies and reduce health care costs,” the report said.
The ever-tightening travel budget has a national economic impact as well, the association said.
“Government travel for meetings and conferences had a total economic impact of $24.4 billion in 2011,” according to the report.
“Additionally, each government-meeting delegate generated roughly $174 in tax receipts, $78 of which went to state and local authorities.”
Locally, it’s hard to tell if the travel ban is harming the hotel and restaurant industries, but Murphy says the CVB isn’t waiting around for the government to change its mind.
“We’re building those relationships, talking to people, making sure we promote the lower costs here,” she said.
“If you create relationships now, then planners will remember the value of coming here in the future.”