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Facing a prolonged dip in international tourist visits, the U.S. Travel Association is gathering allies to make the case to the Trump administration that the travel industry needs friends in high places.
U.S. Travel plans to launch the Visit U.S. Coalition, a group of organizations representing industries mostly outside of travel, later this month, as reported earlier by the Los Angeles Times. The coalition won’t have any consumer-facing messaging. Rather, the group will be aimed at opening more dialogue with the Trump administration, said Jonathan Grella, executive vice president of public affairs for the Washington, D.C.-based association.
Multiple sectors have a stake in travel, said Grella, and too often different industries are competing for President Trump’s ear on an issue that might be impacting many. If multiple industries organized and presented a unified front on an issue such as decreased visitation to the United States, travel might have a better chance of being heard, said Grella.
U.S. Travel began to enlist other industry organizations for the coalition last summer, but the need for such a coalition became apparent months before that, said Grella. “The first travel ban rolled out almost a year ago and our opinion was sought after because our industry bore the same name as the ban itself,” he said.
Balancing the message of the president’s hard-line stance on immigration and border security remains difficult, said Grella. “So we had to tread very lightly on how we wanted to respond to it, considering that our position is appreciative of the security considerations but also a desire for legitimate travel,” he said.
Many U.S. travel brands had feared that the travel ban and other controversial remarks by the president would lead to a decline in international visitors. There was some evidence of a slump dating back to late 2016. That drop has continued at least through July 2017, the most recent month that international arrivals data are available.
According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, total international tourism arrivals were down 4 percent through July of last year. Overseas arrivals just in July dropped 9.3 percent compared to the previous year.
But U.S. Travel, which had been releasing optimistic forecasts in the first part of 2017, didn’t acknowledge the problem until September. That’s when the group revised its data and acknowledged that some kind of international visitor slump was occurring. Experts point to factors that include Trump policies, exchange rates, and the growth of low-cost carriers and airlift in other regions that compete with the U.S. for travelers.
“For months, we weren’t giving a lot of interested parties the information they needed, which was that these policies were a factor in the state of international travel,” said Grella. “But we’re not here to litigate what the current or former administrations have to do with this or the global economy, that’s beside the point. We’re starting to see that folks in the White House and Department of Homeland Security are understanding that the visa waiver program is a good thing, for instance.”
While U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross came out with a pro-travel statement in June, the president’s first year in office has shown that positions and support in the Trump White House are volatile and the administration hasn’t fully embraced the travel industry.
U.S. Travel hasn’t announced the non-travel industry organizations that belong to the coalition, but said the American Hotel & Lodging Association is one member on the travel side. More details are expected this month.
Grella and his team have considered that the more people you bring to the table, the less chance you have of there being a monolithic policy position. “We’re bringing together groups interested in more balanced messaging and pro-growth, pro-security, pro-travel outcomes,” he said.