ANAHEIM, Calif. -- After rising tensions between Washington
and Beijing led China to issue a travel warning for the U.S. this week,
industry leaders attending the U.S. Travel Association's annual IPW event here
said that travel should not be "weaponized."
"While it's too early to know the impact this might
have on inbound travel from one of our top source markets, announcements such
as this can have a chilling effect," said U.S. Travel CEO Roger Dow. He
added that the move "would appear connected to the U.S.-China trade
The warning said that Chinese visitors have been
interrogated and subjected to other forms of harassment by U.S. law enforcement
agencies. The warning also cautioned about the high frequency of shootings,
robberies and thefts in the U.S. and also made note of "tightened visa
Dow said that the Chinese government has made many such
moves before and that U.S. Travel is working with its Chinese counterparts to
urge both governments not to politicize travel, stressing that its economic
impact is "incredibly valuable for both countries."
Dow said, "Don't throw travel into this political game
that's going on. We're watching it, we're monitoring it, and we're a very loud
voice that travel should not be used as a weapon."
Dow made his statement on the same day that the Trump
administration halted all people-to-people travel to Cuba as a means of
pressuring the Cuban government to withdraw its support from Venezuelan
president Nicolas Maduro.
China's move comes just a week after the Commerce Department
said that inbound travel from China to the U.S. slipped in 2018 from 3.2
million to 3 million. That posed a serious concern to the many U.S.
destinations that have benefited from what had been a growing market of
travelers who spend an average of $6,700 per trip, about 50% more than the
average international visitor, according to U.S. Travel.
To that point, Visit California CEO Caroline Beteta said
that the average spending of the state's 1.6 million annual Chinese visitors,
its third-largest market after Canada, is far and away more than that of its
largest market, 7.9 million Mexicans: $3.4 billion by Chinese and $3.5 billion
"It's really important to continue a very healthy and
bilateral relationship with that important country," she said.
Chris Thompson, CEO of Brand USA, said the trends did not
necessarily point to political issues, noting that there was softness across
all of Asia.
"Every Asian market is down slightly," he said of
the 2018 figures, adding that as far as what Brand USA hears in-market, there
is "no significant drop-off at all among consumers."
Fred Dixon, CEO of NYC & Company, said he was concerned
by the news about the China travel warning and was monitoring it closely. Dixon
said it is too early to know if New York had seen a dip in Chinese travelers
this year but said there had definitely been a reduction in spending. According
to data from Visa, travelers from China spent 11.9% less on the ground in New
York during the first quarter.
"That raised our flag, and we're watching it very
carefully," Dixon said.
Catherine Prather, executive vice president of the National
Tour Association (NTA), lamented the "weaponization of travel," but
said that despite a dip in Chinese visitors, she is encouraging her members to
continue their marketing efforts in China, pointing to its massive size and the
many millions of travelers who have yet to visit the U.S. Otherwise, she said, "the
U.S. will lose out to other long-haul destinations."
Alluding to the U.S.'s stricter Cuba travel rules, Prather
said it was unfortunate that the Trump administration seems to understand the
value of travel when used as a weapon, but not constructively in the reauthorization
of Brand USA, the country's travel marketing arm.
The dip in China travelers comes as the U.S. is already
losing market share to other destinations. In 2018, international travel to the
U.S. grew 3.5%, compared with global long-haul traffic growth of 7%.