Expensive flights, long distances and unfavorable exchange rates are three of the top reasons international travelers are not visiting the United States.
Add to those concerns anxiety about personal safety, U.S. politics and burdensome security policies, and a picture emerges as to why the country's share of international travelers is declining, a trend that is expected to get worse over the next three years.
The findings come from a Destination Analysts survey in January of 11,000 travelers in America's top 14 feeder markets, asking what factors deter them from visiting the U.S.
The survey was undertaken just before the industry saw an inbound travel dip in the early months of 2019, in large part due to declining arrivals from Canada and Mexico. The Commerce Department's National Travel and Tourism Office reported that from January to May, international arrivals were down 1.9% compared with the first five months of last year.
U.S. Travel's Roger Dow talks about a predicted loss of market share and what might be causing it.
The U.S. Travel Association recently projected that inbound travel to the U.S. will stall to just 0.2% growth this year, compared with 3.5% in 2018.
While the country's top overseas source market, the U.K., posted a 7.2% jump through May, of great concern is the dip in arrivals from China, the top-spending international market. The drop of 3.9% in Chinese visitors as of May came on top of China's 6% decline in arrivals in 2018, the first drop in visitors from the world's most populous country in 15 years.
While the U.S.-China trade war is widely viewed as having a negative impact on Chinese travel to the U.S., the Destination Analysts survey found that more than a third of Chinese travelers (36.9%) expressed concern about their personal safety in the U.S., a fear that was surely compounded in June by a travel warning for the U.S. from the Chinese government, citing the high frequency of shootings, robberies and thefts.
Lin Wang, the National Tour Association China market services director, said that such warnings are among the ways China wields travel as a weapon.
"In the warning, it says it's because of U.S. gun violence," he said. "But at the end of the day, it's because of the trade war."
As further examples of China using travel as a political weapon, he cited the country's previous bans on travel to South Korea and Japan over political disputes as well as a current travel ban to Taiwan.
"The government in China, they have really strong power to control this industry," Wang said. "We need to understand they use this as a weapon."
As a result, Wang said, he has heard from Chinese tour operators that sell trips to the U.S. say that business has dropped 10% to 30%.
Travel warnings about shootings in the U.S. could be political retaliation in some cases (Venezuela also issued one after the recent mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio), but even so, those in the travel industry say they do have an impact on inbound travel.
"Concerns about my personal safety in the U.S." was cited by almost one in five of those taking the Destination Analysts survey as a reason they did not visit the U.S. more frequently. Among other source markets, the survey found that personal safety concerns ranked highest among South Koreans (23.4%), Canadians (23.2%), Australians (23.2%) and Mexicans (20.2%).
Lisa Simon, executive director of the International Inbound Travel Association (IITA), said some members have shared anecdotal evidence pointing to "concerns about gun violence and safety for their clients and an ongoing 'unwelcoming' feeling they get from the U.S. political environment."
"However, the No. 1 issue our members have reported in relation to softening markets is the strong dollar, particularly when coupled with these other concerns."
An expensive place to visit
Four of the top five deterrents cited by travelers in the Destination Analysts survey related to the cost of coming to the U.S., including airfare (34.4%), the U.S. being generally too expensive (27.5%) and the unfavorable exchange rate (20.8%).
Nick Hentschel, COO at American Tours International (ATI), said one of the problems for inbound is that other travel sectors that don't contend with exchange-rate issues are robust enough that suppliers are not price-aggressive.
"Suppliers are still feeling very bullish about the corporate business and the overall domestic market, so they are less likely to be proactive in offers in order to be competitive for the international market," Hentschel said. "A destination like Hawaii is very expensive for a long-haul traveler from Europe, and [Hawaii is] competing against destinations that are more competitive when it comes to pricing."
He also pointed to resort fees and facility fees as a "big problem for our side of the industry."
Hentschel said 2019 has been strong overall for ATI, but he has some concerns about next year, specifically about the impact of Brexit and the uncertainty it causes for U.K. travelers. China is also a concern.
"It is not growing the way that we'd like," he said. "We would have expected strong growth because there's so much opportunity, and that's weakened for sure. In past years we've had significant growth, and 2019 is not as strong."
Other inbound tour companies are also cautiously optimistic amid what has been a strong year overall.
Steve Born, chief marketing officer with the Globus family of brands, said that while in the rest of the world bookings are surging, North America is experiencing a bit of a downturn this year.
He cited the popularity of longer-haul travel and the relative value of traveling in other countries. He said pricing in Globus' most popular North American destinations -- national parks and Canadian resorts -- has seen increases.
"While a major benefit of touring is overall value," he said, "we can at times see that even subtle increases in price can impact volume as travelers opt for alternate destinations."
Richard Quirk, president of Destination America, said that Alaska, California and the Western and Southern U.S. are doing better this year than last but that Hawaii and the Northeast are not performing as well. Even so, he said, "2020 travel is looking very promising."
This jibes with what Simon said IITA members have been noting so far: a softening in markets rather than a decline and in some areas, business being up.
"There are so many variables to consider, like origin market, type of travel [FIT, group, leisure, business], destination and activities," she said. "It's also an indication that when booking through the travel trade, travelers may be more likely to proceed with their trip because they know they have a professional travel company making their arrangements, and their plans have been made pretty far in advance."
Jeri Clausing contributed to this report.