I have had the blessing (and misfortune) of traveling internationally on an almost-weekly basis since founding my international law practice more than 30 years ago. At no point in that time can I recall another moment so fraught with political risk for the travel industry and, more broadly, for the future of international business.
Many people are referring to it as the "Trump slump," the impact on the travel and hospitality sector since President Donald Trump enacted a series of measures, including the attempted ban on visitors from a group of Muslim-majority countries, a ban on laptops on flights from certain places and proposals of "extreme vetting," which may include customs agents asking all visitors to the U.S. to describe their ideological beliefs and reveal their social media passwords.
The numbers paint a discouraging picture. The travel app Hopper reports that average daily searches for flights to the U.S. have steeply declined in some 99 countries. The domestic tourism industry stands to lose more than $18 billion in the next two years, according to Atmosphere Research Group, while Emirates Airlines has seen profits shrink by 82% for 2016-17.
Although the U.S. Travel Association reports that international travel to the U.S. grew 4% in April, I must agree with its president and CEO, Roger Dow, that "one month does not a trend make" and that a "more welcoming message" from the Trump administration would help encourage visits to the U.S.
It would be one thing if any of these measures were necessary to protect U.S. national security, but it is clear they are not (the exclusion of Saudi Arabia from these lists lays bare their true intention). The decision by the current administration to equate Islam generally with extremism and terrorism is not only unjust and immoral but represents a massive danger to the very globalized social fabric that the availability of low-cost travel is designed to generate.
Moreover, the danger of these policies is not only reflected in regulatory changes but also in how they perpetuate and encourage new norms of conduct at our borders.
I can still bitterly recall landing at New York JFK seven years ago with my team, which included a talented, young British-Iraqi adviser. While the rest of us passed without fuss, she was singled out, pulled aside and taken away for a humiliating interrogation where her privacy, dignity and, arguably, her rights were violated for absolutely no reason other than her parents' country of origin.
Today, that kind of incident appears to be commonplace, if not worse. Governments from Canada to New Zealand and the United Arab Emirates have even had to issue travel advisories for the U.S., warning their citizens to avoid wearing their traditional clothing and to be wary of potential hate crimes.
A graphic from the travel app Hopper shows changes in flight demand to the U.S. since President Trump’s inauguration. Photo Credit: Illustration by Hopper
This is overwhelmingly negative for the country. Trump's "America First" doctrine is alienating emerging market hubs from deeper connectivity with the U.S. To be competitive, we need frequent service and new direct routes to all the places where international business is growing.
Instead, many carriers are forced to cut back and pivot away from the U.S. This could not only impact travel patterns over the next few months but perhaps for the next generation, leaving the U.S. more isolated from the global economy.
So what should be done?
American businesses, including those in the hospitality and travel sector, need to become more mindful of their role in promoting America's core values, even if some members of the administration seem to be departing from them. We advise many clients on developing corporate foreign policies, which in some cases require companies to be brand ambassadors for their nation.
At a moment when minorities of the population are under attack, corporations need to ask themselves on which side of these basic values they want to stand.
In such a highly politicized environment, companies need to adopt political strategies to assess risk; adjust operations; communicate successfully with stakeholders and customers; and outperform their competitors.
An interesting example of this was seen during the recent fallout of corporate sponsorships at the Fox News network following an unsettling pattern of sexual harassment claims. The pressure placed on the network by advertisers reached a breaking point, forcing Fox executives to dispense with the network's leading personality despite extremely high ratings. It was a clear message that some values matter more than metrics.
Maybe now is the time for more travel industry leaders to similarly take a stand for their values in response to inhospitable policies being proposed by the administration.
It might, in fact, be the case that whatever security policies are to be enacted are executed and implemented with more care with regard to the travel industry, explained in a way that doesn't alienate or victimize large sections of the traveling public. Travel companies should be ready and willing to step forward and help revive Brand America if possible and remind the world of our openness, diversity and welcoming attitude.
As it currently stands, the rhetoric coming from the administration contradicts the very premise of the hospitality industry, which is to make those who travel feel at home, no matter where they are in the world. No matter what one's political beliefs or preferences, for those in the hospitality industry, there is a common interest in providing the traveler with both safety and comfort at every opportunity, often with exceptional and memorable service.
Is it really possible to uphold that ideal while also remaining silent?
Robert Amsterdam is an international lawyer and founder of Amsterdam & Partners LLP. He is on Twitter at @robertamsterdam.