For the tourism industry, bad news is often just that, leading travelers to skip a trip to the hurricane-hit Caribbean in favor of a South American destination, or pass up a tour of a historically rich country facing political turmoil.
August shootings in El Paso, Tex., where a gunman left 22 dead and injured more than two dozen others, and Dayton, Ohio, where nine were killed, had some governments warning their citizens about travel to the United States. The El Paso attack has been classified as an act of domestic terrorism, and the gunman in his manifesto said that he was specifically targeting Mexicans.
The gun violence came amid a trade war with China that has seen that country’s currency sharply devalued against the dollar, making it more expensive for Chinese nationals to visit the United States. The recent violence also coincides with the Trump administration’s contentious relationships with even some of the United States’ closest allies.
All of this has led to talk of a so-called “Trump slump” in the travel industry over the last three years, even though supporting data has been scant. But with this country’s share of the international travel market declining, experts are concerned about shifting perceptions of the United States overseas; how to keep tourists visiting America over other countries; and how to communicate that the United States is a welcoming place.
Travel is a key part of the economy, supporting 15.7 million American jobs and generating 2.5 trillion in economic output.
“America isn’t winning when it’s falling behind global heavyweights like China, Germany, France, the U.K., Spain and others,” said Tori Emerson Barnes, executive vice president for public affairs and policy at the U.S. Travel Association, a trade group.
Here’s what we know about the state of international travel to the United States.
Is international travel to the United States decreasing?
According to the Commerce Department’s National Travel and Tourism Office, in 2018 nearly 80 million foreigners visited the United States, a record high. However, according to the U.S. Travel Association, America’s share of the international travel market fell to 11.7 percent in 2018 from 13.7 percent in 2015 — the lowest level since 2006 — and it is projected to continue falling in coming years. By 2022, it is expected to fall to 10.9 percent.
If the country had retained its 2015 market share, it would have received 14 million more visitors from abroad in 2018, and $59.4 billion in additional traveler spending, according to the U.S. Travel Association. That equals 120,000 more American jobs.
This drop can be attributed in part to the strong dollar, which makes the United States more expensive for foreigners. But experts also attribute the change to the trade war with China; limited governmental support for organizations marketing the United States; safety concerns among international travelers who are wary about mass shootings; and long visa-processing times in embassies and consulates around the world.
“All these things have an effect on how people perceive a destination,” said Christopher Heywood, a spokesman for New York City’s tourism organization, NYC & Company. “Perception is everything.”
Has gun violence had an effect?
U.S. State Department advisories and warnings can have a powerful effect on travel. In the wake of violent events overseas, the State Department routinely updates its travel advisories. Following the July 2016 Bastille Day killing in Nice, France, the United States embassy in Paris and its consulate in Marseilles warned Americans about safety in France.
Other countries have similar systems. Britain, for example, has detailed advice for 225 countries and territories. The information is broken down into categories that include “safety and security,” “terrorism” and “local laws and customs.” The security page currently notes that in the United States, “violent crime, including gun crime, rarely involves tourists, but you should take care when traveling in unfamiliar areas.”
Following the shooting in Dayton, the Japanese consulate in Detroit released a statement calling the United States a “gun society” and urging Japanese citizens to be careful. Uruguay and Venezuela also released warnings after the shootings in Dayton and El Paso, joining Canada, Japan, Germany, Ireland, the Bahamas, China and New Zealand, which all had previously issued such warnings.
Although travel warnings can be political tools in larger international disagreements, more countries have linked those safety warnings specifically to gun violence.
While visiting New York City in June, Justine Whyte, a film producer from Toronto, said that she has in recent years noticed an increase in both violence and security measures in Canada and on a trip to Barcelona. But she still feels like “the odds of something like a shooting could be higher” in the United States.
The power of marketing
Countries compete for international travelers by funding tourism boards to promote their destinations. When suddenly everyone is going to Croatia, Iceland or Tulum, Mexico, the hidden hand of the tourist board is often at work.
In the United States, the national tourism board is known as Brand USA, which is supported through a public-private partnership. For every $14 a foreign traveler spends on an Electronic System for Travel Authorization, or E.S.T.A., a document that allows a visitor from abroad to enter the United States without a visa, $10 goes to Brand USA, with a maximum payout of $100 million every year. That is matched by the private sector; no taxpayer dollars are used. Travelers get a new E.S.T.A. every two years.
Brand USA markets the United States directly to travelers by attending travel trade shows, educating agents about American destinations, and partnering with media organizations and tourism operators.
“Because there is competition with everyone trying to chase the same travelers, our job is to remind people that the United States is the most aspirational place to visit,” Christopher Thompson, president and chief executive of Brand USA, said.
The Senate committee overseeing commerce recently advanced a bipartisan bill to extend funding for the organization through 2027. The bill now moves to the full Senate for consideration.
However, President Trump has proposed redirecting E.S.T.A. fees to Customs and Border Protection. The president’s 2020 budget proposed eliminating funding for Brand USA “as part of the Administration’s plans to move the Nation toward fiscal responsibility and to redefine the proper role of the Federal Government,” a senior administration official said in an email.
The fight with China isn’t helping
Of the tourists who visit the United States, Chinese visitors are particularly valuable because they spend an average of $6,700 — 50 percent more than other international visitors.
But what has been a fairly secure market is now falling, in part, because of a slowdown in the Chinese economy. Experts say that the trade war is the larger issue. In 2018, 2.9 million Chinese travelers visited the United States, down 5.7 percent from 2017, according to the National Travel and Tourism Office.
State tourism boards are seeing an impact as well. Arizona’s Office of Tourism said that the number of Chinese visitors declined 3.7 percent in 2018, after nearly quadrupling from 2010 to 2017. Hawaii’s tourism office said that Chinese visitor arrivals fell by 36 percent in May and 27 percent for the year.
Looking forward, the United States is expected to lose 1.9 million inbound visitors and $11 billion in visitor spending from China because of trade war tensions from 2018 to 2020, according to Tourism Economics, a consulting company.
“Tourism is one of the few areas where the U.S. has a positive trade balance,” said Adam Sacks, president of Tourism Economics. “This bright spot is being tarnished when we lose Chinese visitors.”
“Chinese travelers haven’t changed their propensity for travel, they are just choosing different destinations,” said Linda Zhang, the chief executive and founder of Purview Investments, which manages investment strategies with low-carbon footprints. “It’s just that the fascination with coming to America isn’t there anymore, it’s not a priority. They’d rather go to Paris, to Rome, to Moscow.”
In fact, travel from China to the European Union tripled from 2006 to 2016.
Don’t discount bureaucracy
In recent years, countries like Qatar, South Africa and India have found that easing visa requirements can be a valuable driver of travel.
In 2018, the first year Brazil used an e-visa program to ease requirements for some foreigners, 538,532 visitors from the United States traveled to the country, up 13.3 percent from the year before. The Brazilian government projects that the new rules will increase international arrivals to 12 million from 6 million by 2022.
The United States offers visa waivers for 38 countries whose citizens can receive the E.S.T.A. document. That makes it far easier to book a last-minute trip, for example.
People who come from non-E.S.T.A countries must apply for visas before getting on a flight. Under the Trump administration, the wait for visas has been longer because American consulates and embassies around the world have been understaffed.
The wait time for a visitor visa appointment in Tel Aviv is currently 52 days, for example, and in Krakow, Poland, 18 days. The challenge of getting a visa could lead potential tourists to visit other countries.
“Poland, Israel and Brazil are three countries we would really like to see come into the visa waiver program because it will be easier for legitimate travelers to come into the country, to visit, shop in our stores, eat in our restaurants and stay in our hotels,” Ms. Barnes of the U.S. Travel Association, said. “The program helps enable visitors to come here with greater ease and still supports strong security.”
Again, Chinese numbers are having an impact. In the first six months of the year, the number of American visas issued to people in mainland China was down 12.5 percent compared to the same time last year, and visa issuance shrunk by 13.3 percent in 2018, 44.2 percent lower than its peak in 2015.
“Trump nationalism and its manifestation in policy and rhetoric is indeed having a negative effect,” Mr. Sacks, of Tourism Economics, said. “But this effect is only observable in some markets.”