In the Hot Seat
In the Hot Seat

U.S. Travel Association CEO Roger Dow explains why the Trump administration needs to make inbound travel a priority. Read More

With inbound tourism numbers indicating that a two-year slide has resulted in the U.S.'s global travel share dropping from 13.6% to 11.9%, a coalition of the country's leading travel trade organizations has joined forces to try to reverse the decline.

Calling the downturn, which started in 2015 and continued through last year, a "hindrance to the president's economic goals," the Visit U.S. Coalition, as the new group is known, said it aims to partner with the Trump administration to deal with the issue.

Founding members include the U.S. Travel Association, the American Hotel & Lodging Association, the National Restaurant Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

All those parties are worried about the fact that the U.S. has continued to lose share of international visitors even as global travel volume increased by 7.9% in 2017. The U.S. was one of only two destinations in the top 12 global markets to see a decline in long-haul inbound travel since 2015, the other being Turkey. Data describing the drop in visitors is just the latest bad news about inbound travel: The previous week, the Commerce Department reported that from January to November 2017, international travelers in the U.S. spent 3.3% less than the year before, a loss of $4.6 billion.

U.S. Travel Association CEO Roger Dow said that while the Trump administration's lack of a welcoming message to the world has not helped, the decline began before Trump was even a candidate. Factors include a complex web of issues, he said, such as the strong dollar, world economies and even the proliferation of low-cost airlines in other countries.

Rather than point fingers, the coalition is focused on making travel and tourism policy a priority for Trump, with the hope that now that the administration has passed the tax bill, it can get in front of an issue like travel.

Newly formed coalition determined to fix what's wrong with inbound travel

"People around the world seem to be able to separate politics and policy," Dow said during a conference call with the press. "This is an opportunity to step forward and move beyond rhetoric."

The coalition will be looking at "the right policies," such as the number of Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officers and the right number of people processing visas, based on lessons from the "lost decade" following the 9/11 attacks, when the U.S. lost 37% of its global travel share.

"We went down this road after 9/11," American Gaming Association CEO Geoff Freeman said on the call. "There were many years of decline and lessons learned about visa process, entry experiences, about welcoming messages. There is no doubt people misinterpreted a lot of our security protocols to be unwelcoming 10 years ago. We learned lessons, and we need to implement those lessons. We can be the most secure and most welcoming destinations simultaneously."

Neil Bradley, chief policy officer for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said a big part of what the coalition will do is inform the administration about travel's return on investment.

"One thing we haven't done as good a job of in the past is to quantify for folks the benefits of the investment in the personnel and technology to make it easier to visit America," Bradley said.

Travel experts agreed.

"There needs to be a strategy put in place because the present administration suggests that the economy is their biggest platform, and billions of dollars are being affected by the lack of tourists," said Kurt Stahura, dean of Niagara University's College of Hospitality and Tourism Management. "It's counterintuitive with the messaging. We're a world of headlines, and the headlines are of a divisive president. Now he's been labeled a racist, which implies not welcoming, not inviting, and that's the message that's going out."

Stahura is among those who think the Trump administration has more to do with the slide than other factors, because even as the dollar has lost some strength, the numbers have not corrected.

Stahura said the president does not consider the impact his words might be having on travel and tourism.

"He doesn't connect the dots very well on how messaging affects travel and the economy," he said. 

Newly formed coalition determined to fix what's wrong with inbound travel

Heather Gibson, a professor in the University of Florida's Department of Tourism, agreed.

"The image of the U.S. from the outside is not welcoming," she said. "One of the items that we consistently measure in destination image is 'friendly locals.' The immigration policies and other actions and attitudes toward [other] countries that are pervasive right now do not give the impression of 'welcome' and 'friendly peoples.'"

Gibson also said that some travelers "vote with their wallets" and do not want to support a country if they don't agree with its policies, something she faced with students she accompanied to Myanmar last year.

"Some of the students didn't want to spend money in a country that was engaged in ethnic cleansing," she said.

Meanwhile, Stahura said, other countries are doing things to attract visitors, especially in Asia, where travel is growing.

"These cities have improved infrastructure," he said. "Marketing has increased, and as travelers from around the world are feeling less welcome in the U.S., they are seeking alternatives."

Accelerating the visa process

Stahura said the administration's "fluid relations with individual countries" could be resulting in visa issues for certain travelers.

"In some ways," he said, "it's a moving target, depending on the rhetoric at the time with certain countries, and it might determine whether we're going to admit people from those countries with ease."

One of those countries is China, about which Dow said he is anecdotally hearing that visa turndown rates are up, something inbound tour operators have been reporting for months now.

Newly formed coalition determined to fix what's wrong with inbound travel

Craig Hsu, vice president of Travel Design USA, which does a lot of inbound travel from China to the U.S., said growth tapered off in 2017 but that he had not heard any reason why.

"We're not seeing big growth like we did in past years," he said. "We're not seeing a decline either. It's definitely leveling off."

His Chinese customers are still traveling, but to other parts of the world, like Europe and Australia. And in his experience, currency doesn't play a role in that market.

"There are a lot more people in China with more money now," he said.

However, Brand USA president Chris Thompson said some softness in China, from where visitation surged for several years, and other parts of the world, should not come as a huge surprise after so many years of growth. From 2009 to 2017, inbound travel increased from 54 million to 76 million.

"We have to realize that, since 2009, we have had year after year of increases, some quite significant," he said. "We've had record visitation. The fact that there is some moderation is not something totally out of the norm."


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