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Let’s face it. Brand USA and U.S. Travel had a daunting task this week at the 2019 edition of IPW, the annual travel gathering held in Anaheim, California. Leaders of both associations had to convince the international buyers and journalists attending the trade show designed to “bring the world to America” that the country is welcoming, despite looming trade wars, travel bans, and onerous visa regulations.
That’s why it’s no surprise that many of the press conferences held by national and state officials were filled with non-answer answers to questions about any controversial government policy.
For example, Christopher Thompson, president and CEO of Brand USA, the organization charged with marketing the country as a travel destination, tried to downplay the new policy requiring nearly all visa applicants to provide details of their social media history. “Providing security is our highest priority,” he said. “The new requirements for visas have already been in place for visa waiver country, so the policy is already in existence, just expanded.” Well, that’s one way to look at the slippery slope.
Speaking of slopes, according to recent figures released by U.S. Travel, the country is losing international market share. Although there was a 3.5 percent growth in international visitation to the United States last year, the growth rate worldwide was seven percent. That means the U.S. is getting a small piece of the total pie.
During his press conference, Roger Dow, president and CEO of U.S. Travel, suggested that while some attribute the anemic growth rates to the current administration, the industry has been working diligently to educate the White House about the importance of international travel. To illustrate this, he showed a clip from the president’s 2019 State of the Union, where Trump starts by saying the U.S. wants international visitors. However, his next line contained a crack about illegal immigration. After the clip finished, Dow said, “The point is, there is hope.” In response, the audience let out a collective cynical chuckle.
Of course, the big elephant in the room during the conference was China’s new advisory against traveling to the United States. While ostensibly related to crime and the harassment of Chinese citizens upon entry or exit, U.S. Travel has little doubt the warning was issued in reaction to increasing trade tensions.
“While it’s too early to know the impact this might have on inbound travel from one of our top source markets,” said Dow, “announcements such as this can have a chilling effect, so we will continue to monitor travel activity in the China market very closely.”
Chinese tourism numbers already have been on the decline the past two years after seven years of double-digit growth. In 2017, growth was only 4 percent, and in 2018, according to Dow, the number of Chinese visitors dropped from 3.2 million in 2017 to three million. While not a huge decline, there is great concern that the numbers could drop much further should the Chinese government decide to make the United States a country non grata for its citizens. The government has been known to wield tourism as an economic bludgeon, like with South Korea in 2017, for example. Given that China is among the country’s top overseas markets, and the one with the highest per capita spend ($6,700 per trip versus an average of $4,200), a shift in policy could be a big blow to U.S. destinations, particularly those where shopping is a major activity.
How is U.S. Travel responding? According to Dow, “As we have before, we continue to urge both governments not to politicize travel for the reasons I have stated often: travel is incredibly valuable for both countries in terms of direct commercial activity and business relationships that have a broad downstream economic impact. We are monitoring the situation and using a loud voice that travel should not be used as a weapon.”
China is California’s top long-haul market, with 1.6 million visitors. In her response to the China syndrome, Caroline Beteta, president and CEO of Visit California also deflected, saying the state is taking a long-term view, and “living under the banner of All Dreams Welcome,” while “urging public officials not to weaponize travel.”
Comments like these make for fine spin, but if the American travel industry truly believes it has any clout with the Chinese government, it is likely deluding itself.
Turning the Tide
Meanwhile, there was some good news emanating out of the press room. Brad Dean, CEO for Discover Puerto Rico, a destination marketing organization formed last July, said the island is experiencing “an unprecedented rate of recovery” after the devastation of Hurricane Maria in 2017. He noted that lodging revenue is higher than it’s been in eight years. A record 1.6 million cruise ship passengers wandered around the island last year. More ships are now home porting in Puerto Rico and Norwegian plans to expand its operations at the Port of San Juan. Another feather in Puerto Rico’s cap–the World Travel and Tourism Council is bringing its annual Global Tourism Summit to San Juan next year.
The comeback story of Puerto Rico may provide some solace to the rest of the U.S. travel industry, as it continues to struggle to wring lemonade out of the continual string of lemons being lobbed out of Washington.