Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

From a perch atop his organization's booth at London's World Travel Market (WTM) last week, David Whitaker, Brand USA's chief marketing officer, seemed a happy man. That morning, it had been announced that the Global Entry program was being opened to British citizens.

Whitaker repeated a story he had heard from U.S. ambassador to the U.K. Matthew Barzun about a meeting with a prominent British businessperson. The diplomat presumed the meeting had been requested to discuss trade, but instead Barzun was told, "I don't want to talk about trade; I want to talk about what a hassle it is getting into your country."

Whitaker then used a simple metaphor to underscore the impact Global Entry can have in turning that situation around: "When someone comes to your home, you put out flowers."

If expanding Global Entry is the policy equivalent of lining the immigration halls with bouquets, preclearance for travelers heading to the U.S. would be similar to a host offering a welcome drink.

Preclearance from the U.K., Whitaker said, is under discussion, adding that "anything focusing on ease of arrival is fundamental to providing welcome."

The idea of "welcome" seemed to be on many people's minds at WTM. I later heard a rumor that the barrier preventing preclearance for those traveling to the U.S. from Mexico may soon come down.

Currently, Mexican law forbids foreign authorities from carrying firearms on its sovereign territory, including airports. That regulation comes into conflict with U.S. customs and immigrations operational guidelines.

I asked someone who might have insight into the matter if, should the policy change, it would likely be because U.S. officers would give up their guns or Mexico would make an exception to their sovereignty policy. "The latter," was the reply.

The juxtaposition of these discussions with the stark headlines in London tabloids about asylum seekers trying to enter Europe gives one pause. Putting aside humanitarian concerns for the moment, and from a purely industry-centric viewpoint, what might be the impact of the massive migration into Europe on both ease of entry and, longer term, on tourism?

In my view, the current migrant crisis is not, like a hurricane or volcanic ash cloud, a temporary rupture in business as usual. It's not an event but rather heralds a transformative evolution in Europe's history, one which could have an indelible impact on society -- and thus on travel and tourism -- going forward.

My thinking is influenced by recently reading about the powerful, lasting effects triggered by the migration into Europe of refugees fleeing the Bolshevik revolution almost a century ago. Similarly, they flooded Eastern Europe, and drifted westward when they could.

The impact of those estimated three million migrants -- about the same number as are predicted to reach Europe by the end of next year in the current wave -- has profoundly affected almost every aspect of modern European life. Tourists visiting the continent today see countries that reflect the cultural diversity and intellectual vitality that those (and other) immigrants brought with them.

(And, it should, be noted: Early 20th-century immigrants likely also accelerated the conditions that led to World War II.)

I brought this up in a conversation with Tom Jenkins, executive director of the European Tour Operators Association, and asked for his views on the potential short- and long-term impacts of recent immigrants on travel and tourism.

He characterized the current impact as "minimal," experienced mostly away from the continent's main sites of interest.

"Immigration is never as orderly as people wish," he said, "but it's the inevitable by-product of economic success, and economic success is a characteristic of potential tourism."

Considering the long-term impact of migrants, he said, "It may be that an influx of enterprising people from the Levant will give a new dimension to the European mix. The U.K. has benefited hugely from immigration over the last 300 years. Much of British life today is defined by [descendants of] immigrants."

Jenkins sees threats to tourism not with the migrants themselves but with government reaction to what is perceived as a crisis.

"Crises tend never to be government's finest hour," he said. "Government may assume that, faced with asylum seekers, the sensible thing to do is to make it difficult for legitimate visitors to arrive. Currently, Europe is toughening its visa regime, making it more difficult for Chinese or Indian visitors. It does nothing to solve the refugee crisis. It's a mystery that I'm incapable of unpacking."

He likened the situation to post-9/11 America, when the U.S. lost billions of tourism dollars by "stopping imaginary terrorists from arriving."

The current long-term trend, he said, is that Europe is losing market share to North America. It's further exacerbated, he believes, by a demographic and cultural shift away from Europe's place as the primary destination of heritage tourism for Americans.

Previously, there was tremendous interest in seeing where one's parents or grandparents came from.

But great-grandparents? Not so much.

That, coupled with the increasing ease of travel to other parts of the world, are Jenkins' main Euro-centric concerns.

For me, a benefit of attending WTM is that one can, in short order, explore several issues confronting those whose business is promoting inbound tourism.

In other words, one can hear, in multiple languages, a deep and thoughtful exploration of the meaning of "welcome."

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