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The negative effect on travel to the U.S. of President Donald Trump’s tough immigration policies and hostile rhetoric has been widely discussed and documented. Just this week, Politico reported that there’s been a marked decline in visa issuance since Trump took office.
By one measure, the U.S. granted 13 percent fewer visitor visas over the past 12 months when compared with fiscal year 2016, according to State Department data analyzed by POLITICO — a downward trend that appears to have accelerated in the past six months.
One data point that complicates this narrative, discussed here, is that the number of visitors to the U.S. actually started declining in early 2016, when a Trump presidency still seemed highly unlikely. Now here’s another: Today’s February trade report from the Bureau of Economic Analysis and Census Bureau contains the timeliest measure of travel to the U.S., and it shows spending by international visitors (travel “exports”) to have risen now for six straight months, on a seasonally adjusted basis.
The breakdown of this spending data into business, educational and personal travel, available through the end of 2017 on a quarterly basis, gives some sense of what might be driving the spending revival.
Spending on education-related travel was still growing in the last few months of 2017, but the growth rate had slowed markedly from a couple of years ago and there are indications that it may even turn negative in the months and years to come. The number of new international students at U.S. colleges and universities fell for the first time in 12 years in the 2016-17 academic year, according to the Institute of International Education, with surveys indicating that the decline would continue in 2017-18. Again, this shift began before Trump was elected, with the IIE attributing much of the 2016-17 decline to cutbacks in Brazilian and Saudi Arabian scholarship programs.
Meanwhile, spending on non-education-related personal travel to the U.S. went flat in the second half of 2017 after falling since mid-2015. The rise and fall of the dollar — which hit a 15-year peak on a trade-weighted basis at the end of 2016 and is down almost 9 percent since — may have something to do with that. And spending on business travel, after falling since early 2013, rebounded slightly in the fourth quarter, perhaps in response to the rise in business optimism sparked in part by the tax-cut legislation making its way through Congress during those months.
So this is partly a happy story. The world isn’t staying away from the U.S.! But there’s also a disturbing side to it. Those visa declines described by Politico are real. It’s just that not everybody needs a visa to come to the U.S.: The Canadians don’t, the Western Europeans don’t, the Australians and New Zealanders don’t; the Japanese and South Koreans don’t.
Sure enough, with some exceptions (I’m not sure what’s up with the U.K., Sweden and Switzerland), visitor numbers from non-visa countries are either up or down only slightly, while those from other countries are staying away in droves.
Here are the numbers for the top 20 sources of international visitors to the U.S. through September 2017:
Basically, people from rich countries are still coming to the U.S. People from poorer ones, not so much. That’s not terrible news for the tourism industry. It is, possibly, terrible news for the image of the U.S. around the world, most of whose inhabitants live in places where you have to get a visa to come here.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.