As head of the organization in Washington representing the U.S. travel industry, I constantly hear one question these days: “Should international travelers bother coming to America anymore? Are they even welcome?”
The Trump White House’s emphasis on security has understandably raised eyebrows around the world and in the U.S. business community. But this administration and its policies are in their infancy. There’s an adjustment period, both for the new executive branch and for the travelers who are affected by its actions.
So, let’s all take a deep breath and acknowledge something that hasn’t changed and never will: Lawful international travelers—whether they’re here to see the sights, visit family or conduct business—are welcome in the United States.
Given the rapidly shifting global threat environment, in the wake of tragic attacks such as those in Jakarta, Manchester, Brussels, Paris and other cities around the world, the U.S. travel community supports measures that intelligently enhance the safety of all travelers and citizens.
We firmly believe, though, that the details and justification for any new security measures must be clearly communicated to the public. We also believe that the new measures should be accompanied by a simple message: Although the U.S. is closed to terrorists, it is open for business.
We hold out hope that the White House will “complete the sentence,” so to speak. Until it does, the travel industry itself is determined to step into the breach.
Destinations across the country have begun to roll out the welcome message through a series of creative ad campaigns. Major cities such as Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco and New York City have joined destinations such as Nashville, Annapolis and the states of Wyoming and Hawaii in telling visitors that they are just as welcome as ever.
Many of these destinations will showcase these messages, under the umbrella theme of “One Big Welcome” at IPW, the industry’s premier international travel trade show, which is serendipitously happening June 3-7 in Washington, D.C. this year.
But the welcome message cannot be amplified enough—and in fact should be a matter of national policy.
When travel thrives, so does the U.S. economy. President Trump often speaks of the U.S. trade balance and keeping jobs at home. International travel, which is America’s number one service export and number two industry export overall, is key to both. The U.S. enjoyed an $87 billion international travel trade surplus in 2016, larger than any other sector of the U.S. economy. Without travel, the country’s $500 billion trade deficit would be 17 percent larger.
That’s an impressive number, and it’s all thanks to significant spending by international visitors (an average of $4,337 per trip). Multiply that by more than 77 million international visitors to the U.S. last year, and you’ve got a seriously outsized economic impact.
It hasn’t always been this way, though. The U.S. travel industry recently experienced what it now calls “The Lost Decade” of international visitation. From 2001-2010, the U.S. share of the international tourism market fell by 9.3 percent, while travel to other global destinations skyrocketed by 31 percent, costing the U.S.
economy $606 billion and nearly 500,000 jobs. International travel only regained its pre-9/11 share of U.S. exports (11.2 percent) in 2016.
That hindsight is cause for both worry and hope. On one hand, history is in danger of repeating itself. On the other hand, we’ve been here before, and we know we can recover.
The time to change the ending is now. Security is crucial—let’s not have any misunderstanding about that—but tending to the business side of the ledger needs to also become an official policy of the Trump administration.
It can start by reinstating support for Brand USA, the national destination marketing organization it proposes to eliminate in its just-released federal budget blueprint. Data from Oxford Economics shows that Brand USA added 1.2 million visitors to the U.S. in 2016, who spent $4.1 billion and added nearly 60,000 jobs to the economy. It accomplished all that while employing an innovative public-private funding formula, wherein over 700 partner organizations match revenue from ESTA fees paid by international travelers. This approach not only spends zero U.S. taxpayer dollars, but even reduced the federal deficit by $54 million last year.
But that would be just a start. The president is a businessman, and I am certain he understands the potent economic medicine that is inbound international travel. In getting tough on bad guys, he can do a world of good by stating—loudly, clearly and for all to hear—that the U.S. is a place where good guys remain welcomed and valued. I hope he does it soon.
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