Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

President Trump's executive order barring refugees from seven Muslim-majority nations has been debated over points of law and procedural clarity, has spurred appeals of conscience and international outrage and has led to dramatic events and confrontations in the nation's capital and courtrooms.

Not to mention Twitter feeds.

But it's worth noting that the first scenes of enforcement, confusion and protest occurred at airports, underscoring the deep connection the order has to what this industry has long championed: the right to travel.

The words "freely" and "securely" often follow "travel" in that phrase, and the apparent conflict that some people see between the two is at the heart of the contentiousness.

Following the order, it took travel industry organizations and companies a few days to react. Condemnation first came from the World Travel and Tourism Council, the Pacific Asia Travel Association and the United Nations World Tourism Organization.

None, notably, U.S.-based.

The Association of Corporate Travel Executives released a survey showing that about 40% of its members expressed concern about a reduction in international business travel. Subsequently, the Global Business Travel Association polled its members and found half opposed the ban, warning "the economy will certainly take a hit."

In the private sector, Lyft and TripAdvisor announced large donations to organizations supporting refugees, and Expedia declared its support for the Washington state lawsuit that, for the time being, has overturned the order.

The ban came two days after a different executive order to construct a border wall with Mexico. That became a topic on a panel at the New York Times Travel Show, during which Apple Leisure Group CEO Alex Zozaya expressed concern that by painting Mexico as an adversary, the president's followers would be less inclined to vacation there. Travel Leaders Group CEO Ninan Chacko's focus was on travel in the other direction, saying current events might make people in other countries less likely to visit the U.S.

In the event that the current lifting of the ban by courts is overturned on appeal, the idea of either a formal boycott or individuals simply choosing not to come to the U.S. isn't far-fetched. A journalism professor wrote an opinion piece for the Toronto Star under the headline, "Time to boycott vacations to the U.S."

The U.S. Travel Association, the primary policy group that lobbies for U.S. inbound travel interests, has so far issued only cautious statements regarding its support for secure borders, without ever specifically endorsing or disputing the executive order. If Brand USA, the sole federally funded destination marketing organization, has issued a release regarding the executive orders, it didn't make it to my inbox.

The executive order that banned certain refugees also included a suspension of the Visa Interview Waiver Program in all countries. Should that suspension resume, it would be a roll back of a procedural win for U.S. Travel that has also made Brand USA's work to portray America as a welcoming country easier. Still, there is logic in these two organizations sitting on the sidelines for the moment. They may be reasoning that even if the courts eventually side with the president, the change may still indeed be temporary, so it wouldn't be prudent to risk a four-year rupture in lines of communications with the White House over what might be a four-month setback.

Although Brand Trump owes a lot to the travel industry -- hotels are a cornerstone of his business empire -- it would appear that in its early days, his administration is setting a course that is squarely at odds with (lowercase) brand USA.

The president and his supporters have been making the case that without border security, there is no security of any kind for the country, including business-as-usual tourism.

I don't think anybody would argue against a need for strong security; at issue is whether these specific steps are Constitutional, will increase security or are preferable to other approaches that do not upset potential visitors nor endanger U.S. jobs, another priority of the administration.

On the topic of jobs, a few reminders may be in order should the reputation of brand America continue to be called into question by executive orders and policy proposals: In 2015, the most recent year for which statistics are available, more than 15 million jobs were supported by travel. That year, $147.9 billion in tax revenue was collected as a result of industry activity, revenue that could help pay for proposed infrastructure programs.

Small businesses, which the president has repeatedly said he strongly supports, make up 84% of the U.S. travel industry. And travel's economic importance is nationwide -- it's one of the top 10 industries in 49 states and Washington, D.C.

Thanks to inbound international travel, the industry posts a $98 billion trade surplus. Mexico is our No. 2 source market; China, with whom tensions are rising, is No. 5, but is far and away the fastest growing.

The economic stakes are enormously high, which makes the confusion and threat to our image as a result of these two orders -- never mind antagonistic comments toward traditional allies -- distressing.

The U.S. has yet to regain the market share it enjoyed before the post-9/11 "Fortress America" mentality took hold. We've made great strides in recovering market share while still maintaining a level of security that has, for more than 15 years, during two administrations, prevented a terrorist attack resulting from immigration lapses.

No one would argue that continuous and vigilant updating of travel security measures aren't extremely important, but I cannot understand the logic behind policy positions that guarantee nothing yet risk millions of jobs and takes a posture that alienates those visitors whose very presence contributes to America's economic security.

The version of this column that appeared in today's print edition has been updated above to include events that occurred over the weekend.


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