While international travel from the United States more than doubled since 2003, international travel by Greater Hartford residents dropped nearly 20 percent, seriously hurting businesses' ability to make connections globally, according to an October study from a Washington, D.C., policy firm.
In 2011, the Hartford-West Hartford-East Hartford metropolitan area had 278,997 people travel internationally for business and leisure, a 19.7 percent drop from the 347,311 people who traveled internationally in 2003, according to the Brookings Institution's Global Gateways: International Aviation in Metropolitan America study.
"A loss of passengers and connectivity is not a positive for Hartford, especially for a metropolitan area that specializes in high-end services," said Adie Tomer, co-author of the Brookings study.
The study looked at the movement of people out of metropolitan areas, not airports. So, the Connecticut numbers don't necessarily reflect passengers flying in and out of Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, as long as their origination or destination was Hartford, East Hartford, or West Hartford.
Since 1990, international travel across the United States increased 117 percent, according to Brookings. Hartford ranked 82nd among the top 90 metropolitan areas in international travel growth since 2003. "Business is still about relationships, and you can't rely on email," said Anne Evans, district director for Connecticut at the U.S. Department of Commerce. "They always have to be in front of their customers."
Despite the report's findings, Evans said Connecticut business people still are traveling around the world, making connections and signing contracts. The state's exports reach an all-time, non-inflation-adjusted high of $16.2 billion in 2011, double the number of exports in 2003.
The flaw in the Brookings study is if passengers' flight itineraries did not start or end in Connecticut, then they weren't counted. If they drove to an airport in Boston, New York, or any other place outside of Connecticut, then they didn't count toward Hartford international travel.
"How do you compete with Boston or New York when they have multiple international flights per day, priced accordingly?" said John Wallace, spokesman for Bradley airport. "We are in the middle of two major metropolitan areas that have a lot of international offerings."
Bradley did not offer a direct international flight in 2011, leaving passengers to connect to their international destinations via another U.S. airport. However, Bradley did not offer a direct international flight in 2003 either, so people driving to Boston and New York airports in that comparison year weren't counted by the study, leaving the 19.7 percent drop in Hartford international travel an apples-to-apples comparison. "Hartford is one of the few that has seen a decrease in passengers over time," Tomer said.
Economies such as Hartford are boosted by the global economy due to the movement of goods, the supply of capital, and the movement of people, Tomer said. People were the focus of the Brookings study.
The movement of people between a U.S. metropolitan area, such as Hartford, and an international destination builds the network between the locations, fosters trust and recognition, helps break down cultural and language barriers, and brings in tourism revenue, Tomer said.
Hartford's loss in international travel since 2003 could be due to high unemployment, businesses cutting back on travel and a lack of disposable income for tourism, Tomer said.
"Investigating those factors should be a priority for policymakers in Connecticut," Tomer said. "I don't think it all falls on Bradley."
Bradley did have a direct international flight from July 1, 2007 to Oct. 1, 2008 to Amsterdam. The airport and the nearly formed Connecticut Airport Authority are working to bring international travel back to Bradley, as well as focusing on other key domestic connections, Wallace said.
"There is a niche," Wallace said. "We just have to find that niche."
For passengers whose itineraries started or ended in Connecticut, the most popular U.S. transfer points to international destinations were Miami; Atlanta; Charlotte, N.C.; Washington, D.C.; and Chicago.
Of Connecticut's 2011 international travelers, 52 percent went to Latin America or the Caribbean, 19 percent went to Canada or Mexico; 13 percent went to Western Europe; 13 percent went to Asia; 2 percent went to Africa; and 1 percent went to Eastern Europe.
The top 10 most popular destinations in order were Cancun, Mexico; Toronto, Canada; Montreal, Canada; Montego Bay, Jamaica; Oranjestad, Aruba; Nassau, Bahamas; Punta Cana, Dominican Republic; London, England; Vancouver, Canada; and Shanghai, China