So, you may have heard that major events, including the 2018 Super Bowl and 2019 NCAA Final Four, are coming to Minnesota. An effort is underway to attract World Expo 2023.
I’m concerned that we’re not ready to host these big-time events. Further, we may be missing out on a big growth opportunity to further build our tourism economy in the process.
Some recent experiences at the main entrance to Minnesota, Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, have contributed to my concerns.
During the past six months, it’s taken an average of two hours for our customers to clear immigration and customs at the airport, with some taking as long as three hours. That’s because three international flights from Tokyo, Amsterdam and Paris all land about the same time.
We’ve had many customers from Japan miss connections to domestic flights because of the time it takes to get through this airport.
In addition to taking a long time, the inspectors at immigrations and customs are not courteous. While they may have to be strict in how they do their jobs, they don’t have to be rude. They don’t smile, they offer no greetings and they ask absurd questions. My wife and I experienced this personally as American citizens when we returned home from Japan in June.
The Transportation Security Administration operations at the airport are another shortcoming. On a hot day last August, TSA suddenly closed the international checkpoint on G Concourse while we were waiting to meet visitors. We were directed to the downstairs international arrival area to meet our guests. There was no monitor with flight information in that location and no guide to provide assistance. Many travelers were confused about where to go for their connections.
Many of our clients have expressed anger to us about conditions at the airport and the way they are treated. Some have said they won’t come back.
Another big factor holding us back is the lack of airline competition, especially for international travel. This results in high fares and limited service. Although this has long been acknowledged, little has been done.
Airports may not be a tourist attraction, but they play a crucial role in promoting and selling a destination. Tourism is a $13 billion business in Minnesota, employing some 250,000 people. It’s clear that we need to improve the conditions at our airport and work for increased airline competition to ensure that this industry continues to grow.
Key to this is for airport staff including customs, airlines and other retail and transportation employees to consider themselves as ambassadors to welcome all visitors.
We should revisit the training that immigration and customs workers receive to ensure that it addresses topics like cultural sensitivity and customer service in addition to security procedures.
Immigration officials should be flexible to provide adequate staff during the busiest times to ensure that clearing customs here is as fast and efficient as it is at competitor airports.
We need a consortium of local players — including the Metropolitan Airports Commission, Meet Minneapolis, the Minnesota Office of Tourism, local convention and visitors bureaus and the Mall of America — to invite international airlines to fly into our airport.
Asian airlines — such as Air China, Cathay Pacific, Malaysia Airlines, Singapore Airlines or Thai Airways, to name a few — should be prime targets to tap into that fast-growing region. Having Delta as our lone link isn’t sufficient.
Delta should also be encouraged to develop more flexible connections and free stopovers to encourage travelers to explore our region on route to their primary destination.
We can increase jobs and tourism revenue by expanding Minnesota’s share of domestic and international travelers, but only if we make sure our airport is welcoming and airline competition sufficient to keep fares in line with other markets.
I was a member of an advisory panel that worked with University of Minnesota researchers on a study of barriers to Minnesota’s international tourist market commissioned by the Minnesota Department of Transportation. Among the report’s recommendations was increased airline service and more flexible scheduling to allow longer stopovers. That was in 2000.
It’s time to act. In the meantime, more courtesy at the airport will also help ensure we’re ready for the big time.