Many U.S. destinations have blamed the president and strong U.S. dollar for the visitor slump during the past year. But might the impact have been softened if U.S. tourism had a cabinet slot to supplement the efforts of Brand USA? Many other countries have had such representation for decades.
Many media outlets have called the past year’s U.S. international visitor decline a “Trump Slump” and have been quick to paint a grim, blanket picture of the state of U.S. tourism.
In reality, the visitor decline began before U.S. President Donald Trump took office in January 2017, although his rhetoric and policies haven’t done much to welcome international travelers to the United States. A stronger U.S. dollar has also made visiting the country less affordable for many nationalities, although that’s less of a factor for many of the United States’ major source markets as of early 2018.
While tourism boards representing gateway and some off-the-beaten track destinations across the United States have also said some visitor markets were down last year, other destinations pulled-off record visitor totals.
Los Angeles, one of the largest international gateways in the United States, reported a record 48.3 million visitors in 2017.
Discover Los Angeles, the city’s tourism board, is one of the few destination marketing organizations in the country to respond to the president’s rhetoric and launch a campaign last year. Mexico, one Los Angeles’ largest international markets that saw a drop-off last year, is one of the campaign’s intended targets. The organization re-upped its campaign last month and is running ads on streaming service Hulu to present its welcoming message to travelers.
Skift spoke to many U.S. tourism boards in recent months that have either released full-year 2017 data or have preliminary data for how many international arrivals they had last year. Some tourism boards haven’t finalized or released their 2017 visitor data but offered anecdotes and observations.
Canada Sees Safety and Better Value
David Lorenz, vice president of travel for Pure Michigan, the state’s tourism board, said that Canada, which borders Michigan, continues to be one of the top visitor markets for the state.
“In some ways, I hear that many Canadians feel our outdoor spaces and parks are somehow more accessible in Michigan and elsewhere in the country than they are in Canada,” said Lorenz, who expects that his state’s visitor numbers showed an increase. “Many Canadians are seeing a better value in Michigan versus taking a domestic trip, and I also think they perceive the state to be a safe alternative to larger gateway cities elsewhere in the country.”
Visit Anaheim, the tourism board for Anaheim, California, also said Canada came back and did well last year for the destination after a drop-off the year before.
Explore Fairbanks, Alaska, the city’s tourism board, said Canada was up last year and also said that China and Japan are growing. “Alaska has seen increased international travelers despite decreases in international nationwide,” said Deb Hickock, president and CEO of Explore Fairbanks. “We often see different trends than the lower 48 states and we’re seen as an alternative destination.”
Canada was also a bright spot for New York City. NYC & Company, the city’s tourism board, initially projected a 300,000 international visitor decrease for 2017 but revised that number to 100,000 late last year. The city projects it had 12.6 million international arrivals last year, and domestic travel also gave it a boost.
Miami’s international arrivals grew 2.3 percent year-over-year in 2017, despite a 14 percent decrease in visitation year-over-year in September because of Hurricane Irma.
Rolando Aedo, chief operating officer of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, the city’s tourism board, said most of the growth was driven by Colombia, Argentina, and Germany.
Aedo said he expects two-thirds of the area’s international arrivals to come from Latin America during the next five years.
Some Conventions Are Pulling Out
Washington, D.C. has benefited from a boom in protest tourism during the past year since President Trump’s inauguration, and expects thousands of more tourists for the March For Our Lives gun-control demonstration later this month.
Rebecca Doser, a spokesperson for Destination D.C., the city’s tourism board, said there was likely a drop-off in international visitation last year but that the city’s full-year data won’t be available until later this year.
The city’s domestic leisure tourism benefited from protests and marches last year, but D.C.’s city’s convention business isn’t reaping the same rewards.
“There’s at least one international meeting that did not select Washington, D.C. because of the sentiment,” Doser said, referring to International Society on Thrombosis and Haemostasis in July 2023 picking Montreal, “that would have brought more than 14,000 room nights. However, we continue to pursue the international meetings market and are welcoming one major international group this year – International Gas Union (June 25-29, 2018) with 4,700 peak rooms, 25,400 total room nights, and 8,000 attendees.”
“We’re not actively promoting these protests or taking a side in the policy debates,” said Doser. “We’re trying to be a resource for travelers who are planning on coming to the marches and protests. It’s definitely an interesting position to be in and sometimes a challenging one.”
Rhode Island Sees Advantage Between Two Gateways
Rhode Island has been feeling some of the slump but other markets have grown to compensate for weaker ones. The state’s position between Boston and New York City, two of the largest gateways for international visitation to the United States, has long been an advantage for the state, particularly for education tourism, said Mark Brodeur, director of tourism for Visit Rhode Island.
Rhode Island has the famed Newport mansions as a major tourism draw, and the state saw overall growth in international travel last year.
Some 40 percent of the state’s visitors are international. “We see some of the travel increase is visiting families and some 55,000 families come to visit our universities,” said Brodeur.
“Chinese families coming to visit their students at our universities are getting bigger for us,” said Brodeur. “When we look at the international market, we look at leisure but we also look at consistency. We’ve always had a large education market. With international students’ families, they make an average of 20 stays over four years and that’s mostly from the European market.
Though Rhode Island is situated between two hubs, and with the Providence, Rhode Island airport getting more direct service to Europe from airlines such as Norwegian Air, some 90 percent of all visitors (domestic and international) drive to the destination.
“We’ve certainly seen an upswing in UK and Ireland visitors,” said Brodeur. “We do see a decrease in Germany and a lot of that is the economy, we predicted that we would see a decrease in European visitation and most of it because of the value of the dollar.” (Germany was down 0.3 percent year-to-date in September for the entire country).
Nationwide, markets like Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, and India are down by double digits through September, while the United Kingdom, China, and Sweden were down more than 5 percent.
There’s no question fewer international travelers got passport stamps in the U.S. last year but no two destinations were alike in how they were impacted by the slump. Rhode Island and other destinations are still looking at strong years for international tourism despite a few dings.
But the mix of all U.S. destinations’ tourism data from the past year is what has tourism organizations concerned and asking: does the United States still have a horse in the race against other destinations?
The Tourism Slump
As of September, international tourism in the U.S. decreased 3.8 percent year-to-date as of September 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Overseas arrivals, excluding Canada and Mexico, were down 8.7 percent in September and decreased 6.3 percent year-to-date. Mexico arrivals dropped 6.8 percent in September and fell 7.5 percent year-to-date.
Canada is a notable exception – arrivals were up 4.3 percent year-over-year in September and increased 4.5 percent year-to-date. The U.S.-Candian dollar exchange rate was also more favorable for Canadians in 2017 compared to 2016.
The overall international visitor decline has prompted the U.S. Travel Association and other travel industry organizations to form the Visit U.S. Coalition, a group meant to work with a beleaguered White House on reversing the visitor slump that began under President Barack Obama. The coalition is calling for a White House official to oversea act as a liaison for the travel industry while devising a strategy to get international arrivals growth back on track by 2020.
But overall, when considering the gamut of destinations, there was considerable nuance and variety in how cities were impacted.
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Photo credit: International tourism in the U.S. is down but isn't a complete disaster for many destinations. Pictured are tourists at the Newport mansions in Rhode Island. Ernest Bludger / Flickr