Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

In a country as politically divided as the U.S., there is perhaps only one conversation Americans of goodwill can have that bridges the partisan divide. It comprises two questions and requires the ability to listen without interrupting.

The first question, to the president's supporters, is: What do you hope will be accomplished in a Donald Trump administration? The second, to those who didn't support him, is: What do you fear will happen under a Trump administration?

That pair of questions can be narrowed to specific areas of policy, as well, and used to examine hopes and fears as they apply to the travel industry.

To begin, hope.

The country has, for the first time, a president who is an experienced hotelier. The travel industry is often viewed as separate-but-linked sectors, with consumers handed off among companies providing ground transportation, aviation services, accommodations, cruises, theme parks or tours.

But it should be noted that hospitality companies set the standards for all others. Cruise ships, tour operators and theme parks borrow both terminology and best practices from hoteliers; all sectors strive to treat their customers as "guests."

And luxury hotels, where the president has decades of experience, regularly set and reset the bar for service and have the most sophisticated understanding of the underlying business operations that support hospitality.

A president with such a deep understanding of the bedrock benchmarks of our industry could translate his experience into policy in a number of positive ways, from facilitating visa issuance and providing a welcoming border experience to supporting tax policies that encourage growth and job creation and remove unnecessary and burdensome regulations.

If the president focuses on the infrastructure issues he has spoken about and adds, repairs and upgrades vital components of transportation, the industry will be among the most prominent beneficiaries. From air traffic control to roads, bridges and tunnels, facilitating the swift and safe movement of people will make travel a more pleasant and rewarding experience.

Airline unions are encouraged by president Trump's tough, America First trade philosophy that could offset European Union labor laws that give an advantage to low-cost carriers such as Norwegian. Similarly, legacy carriers have been complaining about an uneven playing field for Middle Eastern carriers, which they say are unfairly subsidized by their governments in violation of open skies treaties. Trump's trade stances give them encouragement.

But the industry is not united on all these positions.

The U.S. Travel Association, which represents companies that benefit from inbound visitation, is strongly opposed to challenging the Gulf state airlines, arguing that cutting the number of U.S.-bound flights will be punishing to the industry and its workers because the Middle Eastern carriers bring travelers from throughout Asia via connecting flights. There is a jobs-based case for this argument.

Others recognize that paying for an ambitious infrastructure project would require that either taxes be raised or, if done through privatization, an imposition of, or an increase in, fees and tolls. These could have a suppressive effect on travel.

And if the president's vision for revamping immigration is successful, many jobs that today are done by low-wage immigrants would require the hiring of higher-wage workers. This would not only have a direct impact on labor costs for travel companies but would come at a time when prices of goods such as fresh produce would also rise with labor costs in currently migrant-dependent agriculture.

Add to that the possibility that the cost of goods subject to punitive tariffs may rise, and the end result is an increase in the cost of U.S. vacations (as well as in general cost-of-living expenses). As a consequence, the industry could well see a shortening of average domestic trip length or a rise in travel to countries such as Mexico, where value would seem higher in comparison.

Finally, there are questions related to whether American travelers abroad will be warmly welcomed in countries where policy shifts could lead to a cooling in relations. Likewise, there are concerns surrounding a change in perception of the U.S. as a welcoming country. U.S. Travel had previously documented the cost to inbound travel of the "Fortress America" mentality that followed 9/11, which led to a reduction in U.S. market share and the loss of jobs, profits and tax revenue.

Much, of course, remains unknown. All sentiments of hope and fear will undoubtedly be impacted by unpredictable world events and will evolve.

It's instructive to remember that presidential positions also change and that presidents are not all-powerful. Early in his administration, president Barack Obama appeared to be tone-deaf to industry concerns, discouraging corporate meetings that to him seemed extravagant but that kept thousands of workers employed and struggling hotels alive during the recession.

In the end, Obama declared travel to be a national strategic initiative, and his visa policies greatly facilitated inbound visitation. His thaw of relations with Cuba signaled a possible boon for hoteliers, cruise lines and tour operators.

Regardless of one's politics, Obama will ultimately be remembered as an industry-friendly president and serve as a reminder that the industry -- and the country -- is best served when leaders and our hopeful/fearful citizenry keep their ears, eyes and minds open.


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