Industry leaders lament 'weaponization' of travel by U.S. and China

U.S. Travel Association CEO Roger Dow addresses IPW conference attendees.
U.S. Travel Association CEO Roger Dow addresses IPW conference attendees.

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 dispute."

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 restrictions."

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 by Mexicans.

"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%.

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