Recent data showing a modest decline in the number of international visitors to the U.S. this year are causing concern in the domestic travel industry. For some, this only confirms fears that the Trump administration’s tough talk on immigration and visa policies is discouraging some visitors.
But the U.S. government’s tourism promotion arm, Brand USA, is fighting back against “misconceptions” that might be keeping visitors away, said Christopher Thompson, the organization’s president and CEO.
“The reality is that very little has changed in how people are welcomed to our country,” he said in a recent interview with TMR during the Phocuswright innovation summit in Hollywood, Fla.
Thompson acknowledged that some of the negativity is being driven by the President’s proposed travel ban and other policies, even though much of what was proposed did not take effect due to legal challenges.
“Any time we welcome a new administration in Washington, they come hot off the campaign trail with lots of ideas,” he said, noting that the Trump White House in its first few months was focused on policies that could have an impact on travel. But in practical terms, he said, “we truly need to separate perception from reality; whether you need a visa to enter to the U.S. or not, very little has changed in the way you enter this country.”
Travel is down but spending is up
But these perceptions have already put a dent in what was supposed to be a banner year for U.S. inbound tourism; instead of a projected increase, the number of arrivals is down 2.8 percent through May of 2017. On the bright side, however, visitors’ expenditures are up 3 percent during the same period, Thompson said. Last year, around 77 million travelers to the U.S. generated $246 billion.
He also cautioned against jumping to conclusions that any decrease in arrivals is solely due to the tough talk in Washington. Fluctuating exchange rates also played a part, and the dollar’s strength against some currencies has made the U.S. a more expensive destination for some nationalities.
The latest data from the Commerce Department – parent agency of Brand USA – showed a drop of nearly 700,000 visitors for the first quarter of the year, down from the same period a year ago. Visitors from European countries were down by 10 percent and Mexico fell by 7 percent. The largest drops were from the Middle East and Africa, though they represent a much smaller percentage of overall travel to the U.S.
Brand USA is facing another threat: the Trump administration’s proposed budget called for cutting off funding to the unit. Thompson, who has been at Brand USA through several changes of White House administration, noted that the ultimate decision on the budget rests with Congress, where support for Brand USA is strong.
In 2015, lawmakers voted to approve a five-year budget to assure its work would not be disrupted by the annual budget skirmishes on Capitol Hill. Funding comes from two sources: a fee assessed on some international arrivals, and matching funds from the private sector. Partner contributions are expected to surpass the organization’s goal of $100 million.
Brand USA, which is now in its eighth year of operation, is still focused on its goal of helping to attract 100 million international arrivals and $256 billion in spending to the U.S. per year by 2021, Thompson noted.