Skift Take

This was anything but a sleepy summer. The Trump administration, Brexit, and overtourism — to name a few tourism topics — definitely kept us on our toes during the past few months and we expect more news on these fronts in the months ahead.

Summer is the busiest tourism season for many destinations in the northern hemisphere, and the warmer weather brought some heat to an array of areas besides beaches, boardwalks, and backyards.

But before the temperatures began to rise, many regions in the northern hemisphere and elsewhere were already experiencing some of the strongest tourism growth they’ve had in seven years.

The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) released data this week showing 598 million travelers crossed international borders in the first six months of 2017, a six percent increase in the same period last year. The January-through-June stretch was also the strongest such period since 2010 for global tourism growth as the average year-over-year growth for those months has been four percent during the past seven years.

UNWTO data show that Europe and Africa had the strongest tourism growth for January through June (eight percent year-over-year) while Asia-Pacific was six percent and North and Latin America was three percent.

Data show robust results for Mexico and Canada were partially offset by a decrease in arrivals to the United States, the region’s largest destination and a topic we explore below. Within the Americas, South America, Central America, and the Caribbean led the way with six, five and four percent growth in international arrivals year-over-year, respectively.

Because UNWTO’s data doesn’t account for domestic tourist arrivals in destinations —which often far outnumber international arrivals — global tourism growth for the first six months of the year was likely larger for some regions.

This summer, beginning in June and lasting through Labor Day, there was plenty of activity and announcements, whether in the form of White House policy changes, tourism board funding challenges, Brexit backlash, or anti-tourism movements.

Here’s a summary of the biggest tourism stories to emerge this summer, and hints of what to expect as we enter fall.

1. Visit Florida’s Funding Was Saved But Other Destinations Face Uncertainty

Visit Florida will survive another year to market the state’s destinations, from the Florida panhandle to Key West, after one of the most high-profile destination marketing funding battles in recent memory came to close in June.

The Florida Legislature on June 9 approved a $76 million budget for Visit Florida for fiscal 2018 after a three-day special session in the Florida House and Senate. The special session followed six months of controversy for the organization that grew out of Miami rapper Pitbull’s controversial $1 million contract with Visit Florida last year, and criticism that the organization operated with a lack of transparency. Three C-suite executives, including ex-CEO Will Seccombe, left Visit Florida last December as a result.

Destinations the world over have always had to advocate to save their funding, but challenges to tourism board coffers seem much more apparent this year. Tourism boards in every corner of the world are facing funding challenges and that’s a symbol of how tourism marketing is often misunderstood by elected officials.

But after a dozen Florida tourism boards ended their relationships with Visit Florida this summer due, in part, to uncertainty how their own practices will be scrutinized by state politicians, Visit Florida is a cautionary tale of confusion that funding battles can bring. Expect more tourism board budget battles to play out as communities look for more ways to cut spending – and create uncertainty among tourism board members and partners in the process.

2. The Trump Administration Proposed to Eliminate Brand USA in Its 2018 Budget

Brand USA, the national destination marketing organization of the U.S. that’s funded by a mix of donations from more than 700 partner organizations and matching funds from the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) program, wouldn’t be marketing the U.S. to international travelers if the administration of President Donald Trump has its way.

President Trump’s proposed fiscal 2018 budget called for the elimination of Brand USA’s funding; instead, the spending plan would allocate revenue from the ESTA program to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection organization.

Research has shown that visitation to a destination often declines when tourism board marketing efforts are curtailed. Aside from whatever politics may be going on, the White House should understand the value of tourism marketing and how that leads to job creation and economic development. Proposing to cut the national destination marketing organization doesn’t send a positive vibe to destinations, even if Brand USA’s funding is part of political maneuvering.

Skift reported in July that Brand USA’s partner contributions, however, were down for the first quarter year-over-year. It’s clear that the organization has other concerns besides its status in the budget, and more board meetings this fall will give a better sense of the health of the organization this year.

3. The Trump Slump Is Real

After months of telling the U.S. travel industry that there didn’t appear to be any decrease in international arrivals due to the Trump Administration’s controversial rhetoric, the U.S. Travel Association revised its data this week to present a “substantially more pessimistic assessment” of travel to the U.S., warning of “major storm clouds for the inbound international travel market.”

That’s despite international tourist spending in the U.S. hitting record levels heading into the summer months of June, July and August.

The U.S. Department of Commerce’s data for international visitor arrivals for January through March also show arrivals from overseas and Mexico have been falling since the presidential election last November and continued into 2017. Though it’s difficult to understand where U.S. Travel initially went wrong, having useful information from a travel organization that many travel brands take cues from is better late than never.

4. International Tourism to the United States Dropped in 2016

International tourism growth in the U.S. had been a story of comebacks and records in the years since the end of the global recession in 2009. That all changed last year when nearly two million fewer international travelers visited the U.S., a 2.4 percent decline compared to 2015.

Data show that foreign arrivals didn’t start dropping off until November 2016, and that most of the last year was a growth story for international visitation to the U.S. Many travel brands have chalked up the drop in visitors to the U.S. political climate and the 2016 election, and since divisive politics have continued into 2017, along with an increasingly stronger dollar that makes U.S. trips more expensive, some destinations probably aren’t expecting any records this year.

5. Trump’s Commerce Secretary Tried to Reassure The Travel Industry

“Let me be clear — America is open for business, America is open for travel and open to the millions of international visitors who wish us well,” said United States Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross in June at The U.S. Travel Association’s IPW conference in Washington, D.C.

But before and since Ross’ speech three months ago, the Trump Administration hasn’t taken a single step to make it easier for international travelers to visit the U.S. or make them feel welcome.

Ross said that the administration holds the travel industry in high regard. But when a president continuously publishes negative tweets about some of the largest inbound markets for tourism to the U.S., such as China, Mexico, and Canada, it’s clear that the White House is not taking pleas from the travel industry seriously.

6. President Trump Took a Step Back on the U.S.-Cuba Tourism Detente

Back in June, President Donald Trump announced that he wouldn’t entirely reverse former President Obama’s liberalized policies on Americans traveling to Cuba, but he would tighten Treasury Department audits of trips to ensure they fall within the 12 approved categories and that money does not go to the Cuban government or military.

Trump’s announcement wasn’t the worse-case scenario that many had feared, but it was a step backward and didn’t offer any glimpse of a path forward for tourism to and from two countries only 90 miles apart.

Trump said that the U.S. Treasury Department would have 90 days to implement these changes and the 90-day mark is on or around September 15. Given everything happening with hurricane relief, North Korea, immigration, and the Russia investigation, etc, it’s unlikely that Cuba is currently high on the list of the White House’s priorities. But it’s still something that many brands such as cruise lines are watching.

7. The Brexit Impact on the travel industry got a lot more complicated

UK citizens went back to the polls in June, nearly one year after the country voted to leave the European Union. UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative party didn’t do as well as expected in the snap June election, but May and her party retained leadership and forged ahead with Brexit negotiations.

Skift’s Europe Editor Patrick Whyte reported in June that because of election results, May will have to rely on Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to get anything done. While tourism merited precisely zero mentions in the Conservative manifesto, it is a big economic driver in Northern Ireland and leaders are concerned in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland that a hard border between both countries, for example, could severely damage tourism. Perhaps a softer Brexit, which would benefit the travel industry, will play out because of the election.

8. Anti-Tourism Movements Take Root

While Europe isn’t the only region with destinations experiencing overtourism, it certainly has some of the most high-profile examples of how residents are banding together to speak out against what they perceive as harmful effects on their lives from too many visitors.

Cities such as Amsterdam, Venice and Dubrovnik, Croatia are beginning to address overcrowding in popular city centers, and Barcelona, which is also working on managing visitor growth, has seen protests and violence break out over residents objections to tourists.

The high season is winding down in many European destinations — and Barcelona had to grapple with a terror attack in a popular area for visitors — but overtourism as a story isn’t going away. More cities will take steps to address crowds and visitor growth in popular areas in the next few months that could impact how and when people choose to travel.

9. WTTC Appoints Its First Female and Latin American CEO

Gloria Guevara has a lot to tackle at the start of her tenure at the World Travel & Tourism Council, one of the world’s largest travel industry organizations. At top of mind for Guevara is the issue of overtourism and how to work with destinations on better managing visitor growth and being more proactive rather than reactive in this area. Guevara also brings her background of travel distribution systems to her new post and she has a lot to teach the travel industry about female leadership and Latin America – two topics that many brands are working on.

10. Destinations Still Struggle With Using Data – and residents – to Manage Growth

Many destinations know the drill when it comes to using data to target travelers and find out how they booked their trip, why they want to come to a destination, or figuring out where to spend most of their marketing dollars.

It’s tying together that data with destination management planning where many tourism boards and destinations still come up short. Many destinations like Lisbon have destination management plans in place or have created ones in recent years, but those probably don’t reach the average, everyday resident who lives in a popular tourist district or area. That’s a challenge facing tourism boards around the world. Vienna, for example, has already been talking to its residents about their thoughts on tourism. Similar dialogues will take place in the months ahead as more destinations realize they can’t solve any problems if residents aren’t on board.


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Tags: summer, tourism

Photo credit: It's been a busy summer for tourism trends and major destinations. Pictured are travelers checking out Pier 39 at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco in March. James Carnes / Flickr

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