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Invoking the safety in numbers theory, the U.S. Travel Association officially launched its Visit U.S. Coalition on Tuesday with a plea to the Trump Administration to work with the U.S. travel industry to advance its agenda.
The coalition, which initially includes nine members, including the American Gaming Association, the National Restaurant Association, and the National Retail Federation, is a Washington, D.C.-based group aimed at working with the White House and Congress to balance the anti-immigrant, anti-foreigner rhetoric coming from President Donald Trump with a welcoming message for international travelers.
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. Some of the United States’ most important visitor markets, such as Mexico, the UK, Brazil, and China, all had drop-offs in arrivals at least through July 2017, the most recent month that international arrivals data are available.
U.S. Travel CEO Roger Dow, speaking during a press call about the coalition on Tuesday, said he’s seen evidence that China, already the largest overseas market in some U.S. cities, is losing interest in the U.S.
“We’re hearing there’s a larger percentage turn down of people coming from China on the meetings side with people coming from trade shows,” he said. “Twenty years ago the U.S. owned the trade show business and we had all these great convention centers, but not anymore. Other countries have caught up.”
U.S. Travel’s data show that the U.S. share of international tourism has been decreasing since 2015, from 13.6 percent to 11.9 percent in 2017. The decline cost U.S. destinations an estimated 7.4 million international visitors and $32.2 billion in tourism spending. Dow noted that the visitor drop started under the Obama Administration but that it’s become the Trump Administration’s responsibility to reverse it.
But Dow contended that the factors working against international tourism to the U.S., such as anti-foreigner rhetoric or the strength of the dollar, can be overcome. “Our president isn’t popular in Canada, but Canada still did well last year,” he said.
“The Canadian dollar is one of the exceptions that did well against our strong dollar,” said Dow. “We’re seeking to pull all these organizations together like State and Homeland Security and get them to share the same message that the U.S. is closed to terrorism but open to business.”
Currencies in Canada, Mexico, India and South Korea, for instance, are all doing better against the U.S. dollar in January 2018 than they were a year ago. All represent important visitor markets for the U.S.
In other words, blaming the strong dollar for visitor declines isn’t the total answer. “The constant lack of a welcoming message has had its effect and I think it’s very doable to turn around,” said Dow. “Those currencies are improving and we need to get our share. We’re not getting our piece of this. There’s no single cause and no single solution.”
Dow and other executives on the call said the coalition will tackle priorities such as pushing for adding staff to visa processing centers to reduce visa wait times. U.S. Travel has met with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross on several occasions during the past year.
But these officials have little leverage against a wildcard president whose ideas and policies shift moment to moment.
Brand USA, the U.S. tourism industry’s marketing arm, is not part of the coalition because its charter prevents it from lobbying. Brand USA will instead “cheer us on from the sidelines,” Dow said.
Will a Coalition Be Effective?
It was only a decade ago that the U.S. travel industry was still recovering from the 9/11 attacks, and was engaged in beefing up security checkpoints at airports, for example.
The U.S. wasn’t thought of as the most welcoming place to visit, but the tide quickly turned, and the country went from having a little more than 50 million international arrivals in 2009 to more than 77 million in 2016. In 2011, Congress passed the Travel Promotion Act, which established Brand USA.
The political climate has significantly evolved as President Trump has used platforms like Twitter to defy norms, and spread his anti-foreigner and anti-immigration message.
That net-isolationist message has had an adverse impact on inbound travel. Victor Pizarro, CEO of Berry Whale, a Dominican Republic-based agency that helps Latin American travel brands with their international brand recognition and reputation, said, “That’s why many Latin Americans are limiting their travel to the U.S.”
“When a tourist is sold an idea of a place, to isolate everything else, you don’t pay attention to elections they have going on in Paris, for instance,” said Pizarro. “You’re more interested in seeing the Eiffel Tower. But you have to make sure the tourism outshines the politics.”
On the new coalition, Pizarro said he feels its a step in the right direction, adding that it should incorporate travel organizations from different regions such as Latin America to bring in a global perspective.
Vince Wolfington, a former chairman of the World Travel & Tourism Council and founder and chairman of Entrepreneurial Enterprises, said that many travelers didn’t take the opportunity to visit the U.S. a decade ago because of the Iraq War and other Bush Administration policies.
Wolfington was also key in working with the Bush White House to help them understand the significance of the travel industry and its economic impact. “We were faced with the same kinds of things that U.S. Travel is faced with today,” he said. “We were able to bring the WTTC Global Summit to D.C. in 2006 and that was important. We got [former Secretary of State] Condoleeza Rice to give a speech that resonated with the Administration and that was key.”
Some argue that recent history shows that reversing the visitor decline to the U.S. is achievable. The big question that remains is whether the White House and Republican-controlled Congress are willing to break from its current net-isolationist stance.