Domestic leisure travel among Americans appears to be getting stronger, helping to offset declining growth in international visitors to the U.S. It's also growing in new directions, with glamping and cultural tours especially popular.
As growth in inbound tourism to the U.S. declines, Americans are picking up the slack, with travel advisors noting an uptick in U.S. clients seeking domestic experiences —including some that rival overseas journeys in complexity and depth.
Recent figures from U.S. Travel Association’s Travel Trends Index also bear this out, showing that while international travel to the U.S. grew by just 1.2 percent in May over the previous year, domestic tourism grew by 3.6 percent, most of that coming from the leisure sector. The index predicts that international travel growth will slow to just 0.4% over the next six months.
“Domestic leisure travel has been a solid source of demand for the travel industry over the past several years,” said David Huether, U.S. Travel’s senior vice president for research. “This has been especially important given the impediments to international inbound travel growth.”
While the Travel Trends Index currently does not break out domestic travel by state or region, Huether told Skift that U.S. Travel is currently developing a quarterly index that will provide localized data.
A trend for American travelers to explore their own country doesn’t mean that fewer of them are vacationing overseas. The rate of growth in international travel among Americans, however, is relatively low. According to the World Travel Trends Report released at ITB Berlin in June, outbound travel during the first eight months of 2018 grew by 8 percent from both Latin America and Asia, 5 percent from Europe, and just 4 percent from the U.S.
Changing Nature of Domestic Tourism
As travel advisors report growing interest in domestic tourism among Americans, they also say it’s taking on new dimensions.
Some of these involve a deeper dive into the American experience, with itineraries devoted to civil rights history, Native American culture, and regional culinary and music traditions. Visits to national parks and other scenic areas remain popular but are growing more sophisticated, often including glamping or other luxury accommodations.
Janet Moore, owner of Distant Horizons Travel in Long Beach, California, an agency whose clients often book exotic trips, is surprised by a recent shift of interest toward domestic itineraries.
“I definitely see a trend toward people wanting to stay closer to home, perhaps because of a general uneasiness about how Americans will be treated overseas,” she said. “Given this, some feel it’s time to see what there is to do in America.”
Especially popular among her clients this year are recently introduced Civil Rights tours of the Southeast that Distant Horizons is operating in conjunction with The Nation magazine. The tours visit such places as the home of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, and Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, where the group meets with Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine students who integrated the school in 1957.
“Interest in these tours is booming in a way that I’d never anticipated,” Moore said. “What also surprised me is how few of the participants, most of whom are well-traveled, had been to the South before. It’s a new and profound experience for them.”
Distant Horizons also recently introduced tours exploring Native American culture in the Dakotas, including the rarely visited Pine Ridge and Standing Rock reservations.
“It took two years of research and relationship-building with the local communities to develop these tours, but the challenge was worth it,” Moore said. “Reservations often get bad media coverage, but we found that incredible and inspiring things are happening there.”
Sylvia Betesh Lebovitch, senior travel advisor at SL Travel, part of Ovation Travel Group, in New York, is also seeing an uptick in domestic travel requests, with especially strong interest in cities that have a vibrant culinary or music scene like Charleston, South Carolina; Austin, Texas; and Nashville, Tennessee. Upscale dude ranches and national parks, especially when paired with glamping, are also popular with her clients.
“I still see steady overseas travel, but domestic travel is growing exponentially, especially with younger clients and for multigenerational trips,” she said.
Lebovitch believes some of it has to do with a growing trend in the travel industry for people to take more trips per year. “While people might still take a long trip once or twice a year, they are now adding on shorter trips of three or four days, so domestic travel makes sense,” she said.
Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg, co-owner of Valerie Wilson Travel, is also seeing an uptick in domestic trips, which are usually booked at the last minute for short getaways. She also sees growing interest in national parks, noting that this may be sparked by last year’s National Park Centennial, which put a spotlight on the parks and encouraged visitation.
Growing demand for family travel, fueled by the increasing numbers of millennials with children, is another likely reason that domestic travel is doing well. A newly released survey, Portrait of the American Traveler from MMGY Global, reported surging interest in family road trips, a trend largely driven by millennials “who believe road trips evoke a sense of nostalgia and are a means of family bonding.”
“Millennials are embracing road-trip travel, which makes sense since over half of them now have young children,” said Chris Davidson, MMGY’s executive vice president of insights and strategy.
“Domestic family travel is definitely on the rise for us,” said Ashley Diamond of the Ovation Travel Group in New York, which focuses on the luxury market. “Our clients are becoming more interested in exploring their own backyards and the diversity that the U.S. offers.”
A growing number of luxury resorts and glamping experiences in nature-oriented destinations such as Montana, Mount Rushmore, and the Grand Canyon are opening up new options for travel advisors to offer upscale clients, she added.
“Areas which previously didn’t offer luxury or attractive accommodations are now more desirable for discerning clients,” Diamond said.
“Some of our clients are also opting to travel domestically during the holiday season as they have grown weary of room night minimums and sky-high prices in the Caribbean,” she added.
Los Angeles-based TravelStore is another agency seeing a rise in luxury bookings in and around national parks, especially for families, said Dan Ilves, senior vice president, leisure. However, he also noted that international travel remains the bulk of TravelStore’s business and continues to outpace domestic travel in growth.
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Photo credit: Rev. Carolyn McKinstry, who survived the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, addresses tourists in the church. Distant Horizons