Travel agents are seeing their businesses impacted by the constantly shifting sands and lack of clear guidance surrounding the Trump Administration’s immigration executive order, ASTA reported on a conference call with the press today.
Eben Peck, senior vice president of government and industry affairs at the American Society of Travel Agents, said travel agent clients are cancelling trips to destinations that weren’t even impacted by the order, while travelers with valid visas and passports fear for their ability to depart—or to return home if they do.
“Our head is spinning too,” Peck said, describing the whirlwind of activity since the order was signed and executed Jan. 27-28. “The way this was implemented and all of the confusion it created is having a clear impact beyond people coming in from these seven countries. It’s having a chilling effect.”
He told of a Norwegian resident with a valid green card who was refused boarding on a flight to America. “It concerns us,” Peck said.
Peck said ASTA has been receiving regular updates from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection service, with the most recent call being last Friday. “We are in the loop, but we don’t necessarily know what is going on,” he said.
Confusion and more confusion
Politicians and the media sometimes just make the confusion even worse. On Jan. 30, New York State Senator Charles Schumer told the NBC Today Show that the Visa Waiver Program “allows people from France, Belgium—places where there are known terrorists—to come in no questions asked.”
“This is factually inaccurate,” the Global Business Travel Association retorted in a statement. “The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) has a number of rigorous requirements for travelers, starting with the sharing of passenger information between the U.S. and Western governments.”
Michael W. McCormick, GBTA executive director and COO, noted that “while the rollout of the new travel ban has not been flawless and many questions remain, adding misinformation to the public debate is counterproductive and creates more confusion for business travelers and the flying public.”
The ongoing media coverage and various court cases are starting to impact travel agent bookings.
“Some people fear for their business,” said ASTA director of communications Erika Richter, on the Tuesday conference call. She told an ASTA member’s story about a client who canceled a trip to the Bahamas this month, despite holding valid travel documents, out of fear of not being able to return to the United States.
“We definitely have clients rethinking their plans and had a cancellation just today from a client as a direct result of this ban,” said Amie O’Shaughnessy, founder and CEO at Ciao Bambino Inc., Oakland, CA. “A client who is a U.S. resident with a green card and is from India (not one of the stated seven countries) was advised by their attorney to cancel their plans to be out of the US for fear that they couldn’t get back in given the situation. So they’ve cancelled their trip to Europe that was booked with us.”
“We have clients who travel oversees for business and others who are scheduled to depart on company incentives and others who are schedule for vacations. At the initial release of the Executive order all had contacted us to cancel their travel,” said Cathie Lentz Fryer, president, CTA Travel, Cerritos, CA.
“Now even with the updated information that Lawful Permanent Residents of the United States, green card holders will be allowed back in the county, several are afraid to travel. What if another change happens and they can’t get back home?”
ASTA has consulted with its leadership and members, and is obtaining both anecdotal and quantified feedback. It currently has a member survey in the field attempting to quantify the order’s impact on agents’ business. Peck said ASTA is hoping to have hard data by the end of next week.
Agents are telling ASTA that travelers are also concerned with how Americans might be received abroad. Richter told a story about how one agent said a March Spring Break trip to Mexico was cancelled because the clients were concerned about how Americans would be treated there.
With a temporary stay, Peck is hopeful that there will be discussions about ways to eliminate the confusion and that there is “time for us to right this ship.” ASTA has not formally taken a stand on the executive order itself; its members are mixed on their views, he noted.
Finally, and on a positive note, Peck said the confusion is once again raising consumer awareness of the value of working with a professional travel agent. ASTA has been active with the media, reaffirming to the public “that agents can help you sort through your feelings and these issues.”