Concern over Trump's rhetoric has travel rolling out red carpet

Photo Credit: Razorbeam/Shutterstock

WASHINGTON -- Attempting to stave off potential backlash resulting from U.S. polices that might seem unfriendly to international visitors, destinations from California to Virginia are rolling out their welcome mats. 

The theme of the U.S. Travel Association's annual IPW conference here last week, which attracts thousands of mostly foreign travel buyers and journalists, was "One Big Welcome."

The same name was given to Brand USA's newest campaign, launched at the event, which CEO Chris Thompson said was part of the national marketing organization's mission to "market the welcome" of international travelers. 

Paradoxically, the show kicked off the same day that President Trump took to Twitter to describe his executive order as a "travel ban," giving more weight to the need for welcoming messages.

"The lawyers and the courts can call it whatever they want, but I am calling it what we need and what it is, a TRAVEL BAN," Trump tweeted, adding, "The Justice Dept. should have stayed with the original Travel Ban, not the watered down, politically correct version they submitted" to the Supreme Court.

U.S. Travel CEO Roger Dow did not pull punches on the issue, saying that Trump's policies could send the wrong message.

"I wonder if many of you are saying, 'I wonder if the U.S. even welcomes us anymore,' " Dow said. "And on behalf of the U.S. travel industry, I'd like to give you an answer: We want you to visit here. We want you here. We want you to send your friends here. We all welcome you."

The industry has been made uneasy by Trump's "America first" rhetoric, his continued attempts to institute the travel ban on citizens of six Muslim-majority countries, Homeland Security's restriction on large electronic devices such as laptops in carry-on bags from eight Middle Eastern and North African countries and the administration's decision to eliminate Brand USA in its latest budget.

So it seemed to surprise many in the audience here when Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said that the U.S. was "open" to international visitors. "Without security, there will be little travel," Ross said. "But let me be clear: America is open for business. America is open for travel. America is open for international travelers."

He added that the administration "recognizes the power of travel as an enabling platform for business, a gateway to education and a bridge to bring people together."

The Visit California booth at IPW 2017.
The Visit California booth at IPW 2017. Photo Credit: Johanna Jainchilll

When speaking to the news media later, Dow reminded reporters that Ross' remarks had been approved by the White House and that Trump was only 149 days into his presidency. He also recalled how when first elected, President Barack Obama needed to be educated about the value of travel and tourism. After a series of missteps -- such as making disparaging remarks about businesses holding meetings in Vegas and suggesting that travel agents were an all-but-extinct species -- he ended up being "one of the best presidents ever for travel and tourism."

As for Trump, Dow said, "This president has a tendency to talk real fast. He didn't send the message, I think, correctly. Yes, we are concerned about the rhetoric, but we are going to get through to him. He's a businessman, he's smart, and we will help bring him around."

Positive trends amid concerns

It has so far been difficult to measure the impact of Trump's actions because actual Commerce Department travel numbers for the first quarter of 2017 won't come out until the end of the year.

And while several companies have said that internet travel searches for the U.S. are down, and while the GBTA predicts a loss of more than $1.3 billion in overall travel-related spending in the U.S. due to political uncertainty, there have been positive indicators as well: U.S. Travel's Travel Trends Index found that international travel had grown about 4%, year over year, in April.

That was seen as an important indicator because U.S. Travel found that the average international visitor embarks on a trip to the U.S. 56.9 days after his or her initial travel search, making April the first month that could have shown any real impact from the initial travel ban.

In fact, the strength of the dollar is widely considered the biggest obstacle to international travel right now.

Destinations are not taking any chances. The destination marketing organization NYC & Company recently launched an international communications and marketing initiative called "New York City -- Welcoming the World."

"We were one of the first destinations to come out in opposition to the travel ban," said Fred Dixon, CEO of NYC & Company. "We stand in opposition to any impediment to legitimate international travel."

Visit California's #AllDreamsWelcome campaign was created with the same idea.

"We thought it was important to double down on our messaging platform about rolling out the red carpet and our sincerity here in California that nothing's changed, and we are exceptionally humbled and pleased to have visitors from all over the world," said Caroline Beteta, Visit California CEO, who said the organization's board in February released an extra $1 million to support the initiative and get ahead of any possible headwinds resulting from U.S. policies.

Virginia, whose message has long been "Virginia is for Lovers," is trying to share that love more broadly by promoting the #VAwelcomesall hashtag.

A smaller destination, the Aquarium of the Bay in San Francisco, said it was increasing its outreach to foreign visitors and trying to create a more welcoming space, for example, by printing brochures in more languages.

"We talk about it a lot," said the aquarium's marketing and communications director, Jacqueline Murray. She added that during summer months, international visitors make up 65% of its visitors.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross speaking at IPW 2017.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross speaking at IPW 2017.

"This is the first year we're really focusing on creating a more inviting and welcoming space for international guests," Murray said.

Not every destination is as concerned.

"Anecdotally, we are not hearing any indication that the international market is being impacted by the Trump administration," said Kyle Edmiston, assistant secretary of Louisiana Tourism. "Unless the policy actually changes, people are not going to stop traveling because of any rhetoric."

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