In London’s Westminster, tourists crowd the bridge and surrounding streets, trying to snap a picture of the famed Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, and of course, Big Ben.
In what might one day be seen as a darkly comedic stroke of history, Big Ben — one of London’s most iconic tourist attractions — has been flanked by scaffolding since 2017, while it undergoes repairs. Unintentionally, it serves as a symbol of a moment when Britain itself seems in need of repair, mired in an existential political crisis that the world is watching with a mix of bemusement and pity. That would be Brexit, of course.
But what of those tourists? Some, one can presume, might have dreamed their whole lives of snapping a photo of these storied sights and are disappointed to find the clock’s face obscured. But others still might not be here at all, preferring instead to go somewhere where the landmarks they’ve long dreamed of visiting aren’t also the scene of a political battle that perhaps makes them feel unwelcome.
Indeed on World Tourism Day, being celebrated Friday, it seems worth reminding the world’s tourism superpowers and newcomers alike that tourists don’t book and embark on trips in a political vacuum. While nations are understandably keen to cash in on the GDP, jobs, and soft power gains that tourism offers, some seem to be forgetting the fact that would-be tourists read headlines, talk politics, as well as care about values and political ideology too.
According to VisitBritain, the nation’s tourism board, Britain has seen a “slowdown from Europe” as well as a fall in both international arrivals and visitor spending (1 percent and 2 percent, respectively) in the first six months of this year compared to last year. Though modest, the decline represents a reversal of positive growth made in 2017 and 2018.
It’s impossible to prove what, precisely, is driving international arrivals down in Britain or in any place; it’s rarely one single factor. It’s not too much of a logical jump, however, to suppose that people from Britain’s largest inbound travel market by far — Europe — might be put off by the fact that the United Kingdom is engaged in a bitter fight to rid itself of what’s been positioned as a foe — also Europe. A spokesperson for VisitBritain told Skift that its research had shown one factor was indeed “the uncertainty [that] Brexit is having for visitors from the EU.”
And of course, Britain’s Atlantic ally is meeting a similar fate. The United States has seen a slide both in international arrivals and its market share of global travel — with a forecasted loss of $180 billion in customer spending by 2022. The U.S. Travel Association, the industry’s trade group, gingerly cites Trump’s potential effect on this slide — in addition to other factors — using language like “uncertainty surrounding the Trump administration” to explain the drop.
Again, to put it more bluntly, it’s not hard to imagine tourists balking at the idea that they may soon be required to hand over their social media profiles to the U.S. to qualify for a visa wavier. Or more fundamentally, that they may be offended by President Trump’s rhetoric about “shit-hole” countries or his habit of treating longtime alliances in Europe and elsewhere in the world with casual dismissal. The outsiders and foreigners Trump so often speaks dismissively of are, after all, potential travelers too.
Hong Kong, in a different scenario, has seen a devastating 40 percent drop in arrivals since protests began in early summer. While pro-democracy protesters and their supporters fighting for something they believe is far more important than GDP and tourism revenue, the tourism sector has had to face the sober truth that there is no way to sell trips and tours when the issues on the ground are matters of political identity and existence. (And not to mention safety.)
And finally, today, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will open itself to tourists for the first time with a launch event detailing its forthcoming e-visa program. Of course there are plenty of reasons why travelers might be keen to visit the Kingdom, as featured in a recent slick video campaign. But there are also plenty of ideological reasons they may not: The fact that women and LGBTQ people lack certain fundamental rights is one, as well as the headlines regarding the assumed execution of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. While it’s true that countries with similar issues may have been able to build tourism economies in the past, Saudi Arabia seems to be testing the thesis that tourists will look past political realities entirely when choosing where to go on holiday.
When tourism arrivals begin to fall in a given place, industry players and tourism officials rightly fret. But when it comes to politicians and public officials, the tourism industry’s contribution to the economy is generally underappreciated and underplayed compared to, say, agriculture or automobiles.
That’s perhaps why politicians don’t worry about rhetoric or policies scaring off would-be tourists. After all, it’s hard to imagine a politician having to face criticism along the lines of: “Tourism jobs and revenues declined because of your policies.” It’s also why imperiled destination marketers like Brand USA are constantly reminding politicians of the economic impact their marketing efforts have.
Undervaluing tourism’s role in our world and nations is a mistake. Travel’s impact on the world may not always be positive, but it’s hugely significant economically, socially, and politically. At Skift, we obsess over this outsize role that travel plays in the world: the connections it fosters, as well as its often messy intersections with geopolitics, the economy, and the environment.
Tourist destinations that want to hang on to the positive contributions that come from tourism should start to think in the same vein. The tourism industry doesn’t exist in isolation from the world of politics — it collides with it.