The US is slipping as a tourist destination, and more than Covid is to blame

Visitors welcome.
Visitors welcome.
Image: Reuters/ SARAH SILBIGER
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The US is slipping as an international tourist destination, and it’s not just the pandemic keeping visitors away.

The country’s share of overseas travelers fell from 13.7% in 2015 to 11.7% in 2018 as potential visitors chose other destinations, and a US Travel Association forecast expects a further decline to 10.4% by 2023. In 2016, international visitors actually decreased about 2% from 2015.

There’s no one reason for the decline, and some is due to the rise of other countries as appealing destinations and strength of the U.S. dollar. Some, however, is attributable to the policies and rhetoric of former US president Donald Trump, like the “travel ban” on certain Muslim-majority countries and a perceived hostility toward foreigners. But some travel executives warn that the visibility of mass shootings, hate crimes, and racism could also tarnish the US’s image with potential visitors.

While US president Joe Biden has arguably improved the US image abroad and made a point to undo controversial policies, some travel executives are urging the industry not to assume a change in the White House is a panacea. Considering a full recovery of international visits will likely take years, the stakes are high.

“I think we’ve got lots of work to do to restore the appeal of the United States as a global travel destination,” Marriott International CEO Anthony Capuano told MSNBC’s Ali Velshi during a recent interview at the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing’s annual conference. The hotel chain posted a $267 million annual loss in 2020—its first since 2009.

Foreign travelers are still eager to visit

Despite the image problems in recent years, airlines, hotels, and destinations still say they’re expecting to see pent-up demand from international visitors as soon as borders open.

The vaccine rollouts on US soil have stimulated domestic travel, but international flights have still been largely suspended while immigration, health, and aviation officials work to reopen cross-border flights.

Travel companies are sending a clear message to the US government: Come up with a plan to reopen international travel safely, and fast.

The urgency makes sense. The US earns more money than any country from international tourists, who spend an average of $4,200 on each overseas visit. But even with half of US adults vaccinated and back to maskless mingling this summer, most international travelers are still waiting for the green light to visit.

Under a best-case scenario, inbound international travel to the US is expected to recover in 2024, according to the most recent data from Tourism Economics, a research company.

The US welcomed 79.4 million international visitors in 2019 based on statistics from the US Department of Commerce’s National Travel and Tourism Office—a slight drop from 2018, but higher than about 77.2 million people in 2017. But in 2020, the US counted only about 19.4 million visits from abroad.

The US was the world’s third-most popular tourist destination in 2018 behind France and Spain according to the World Tourism Organization. The top markets for international visitors to the US are Canada, Mexico, and the UK.

The lost travelers translated into a huge financial hit for the tourism industry. According to a May 11 letter from the US Travel Association to Biden, the country has lost $150 billion in export income last year. And 2020 was the worst year on record for US hotels with only 44% occupancy, according to data from Smith Travel Research (STR), which tracks hotel supply and demand statistics.

But international traffic should open up soon from select countries, provided that issues like COVID-19 variants don’t derail those plans.

The European Union recently announced it would lift quarantine rules for vaccinated travelers and allow people to travel in the region using digital “passports,” and the US and UK are setting up a task force to look at restarting air travel between the two countries but have not announced a date when it might resume.

A more welcoming climate for tourists

Biden has already taken steps to invigorate US tourism by revoking Trump’s policies. In January, he ended the travel ban originally directed at citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries, calling it “a stain on our national conscience.”

Destinations within the US are also trying to signal that the climate for tourists is different.

New York City, which welcomed 13.5 million international visitors in 2019, turned up the volume on its messaging about being a welcoming place during the Trump years.

“There’s no doubt about this, that some of the policies that were put in place by the Trump administration—the protectionist policies—created a lot of challenges for us,” said Chris Heywood of NYC & Company, the city’s official destination marketing organization. He was speaking from Mexico City, where the organization was holding its first in-person media event since the pandemic started.

NYC & Company had to activate all of its advertising and marketing resources to reinforce its welcoming spirit, said Heywood. “I don’t think we would have had to do that if we had a president that was pro-tourism and pro-welcome.”

And yet, despite headlines that the travel industry was suffering from a “Trump Slump,” it’s not clear the extent to which the former president affected travel. Several other factors like strong US currency and travel trends in emerging markets likely played a role as well.

“One of the big reasons [was] because the growths are from the Asia-Pacific area, where people tend to travel to nearby countries rather than long-haul countries like the US,” said Bing Pan, an associate professor at Penn State who studies tourism and recreation.

Some markets did show declines in US visitation that appear linked to the former president. Germany, which went from being the third-largest US overseas market in 2012 to the sixth in 2018, lost its appetite for US travel in favor of visiting places like Egypt, Thailand, and the United Arab Emirates, according to data from the US Travel Association. In 2017, Bloomberg cited a survey indicating that almost half of Germans who wanted to travel to the US had changed their mind because of Trump.

And when Trump started a trade war with China in 2018, Chinese visitors to the US fell 5.7% that year after a period of steady growth. China had also warned citizens about possible harassment from US officials, as well as frequent shootings, and robberies in the country.

But concerns about losing potential visitors are not new. The US Travel Association refers to the period between 2000 and 2009 as “the lost decade,” estimating the US missed an opportunity to attract 68 million visitors because it didn’t have a marketing strategy as international travel started booming globally. The numbers were compelling enough to convince Congress to pass a new law known as the Travel Promotion Act in 2010, which created the destination marketing organization known as Brand USA. The public-private partnership is partially funded by the application fees tourists pay for visa waivers.

The role of hate crimes and gun violence 

Even if Trump’s disparaging comments about immigrants are no longer flooding the airwaves, the US still visibly struggles with issues like racism, gun violence, and hate crimes. While it’s hard to tie any one of those issues to visitor numbers, anecdotal evidence shows these factors could discourage tourists.

In a recent study from Temple University, nearly half of 214 Asian American and Pacific Islanders across the US said they were concerned about traveling locally, domestically, and internationally after a surge in hate crimes.

“I think one way to view this is that some of the domestic social issues that the US is having will have a ripple effect on international travel to the US,” said Robert Li, director of Temple University’s US-Asia Center for Tourism and Hospitality Research.

Tourism officials in regions with unwelcoming politics are also worried about the impact on international travel. Nashville calculates that international travelers make up 5-7% of its overnight visitors in a typical year. Though the city is known for being more progressive than other parts of Tennessee, anti-LGBT bills have made their way through the state legislature.

Butch Spyridon, CEO of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp., said he hasn’t seen factors like mass shootings, police violence, or discriminatory state laws dramatically affect the US tourism industry’s bottom line yet, but that they “certainly could.”

“All of those [issues] combined make the international traveler question, ‘Is the US safe?’ He said. “I think so far they mostly conclude [that] yes, we are still a welcoming, safe country. But the more issues come up and the more often, eventually if we ignore it it will have an impact on us.”

Yet for some visitors, the most unwelcoming vibes come from security and immigration procedures at the airport.

“You feel like they look at you like a criminal,” said Jana Isaza from the Dutch Caribbean island of Bonaire. She said she’d pay more for a flight connection that doesn’t transit through the US because the security procedures are so uncomfortable.

Peter Cain, a traveler from Australia who loves visiting the US for its natural diversity, national parks, and friendly people, agreed that the immigration and security procedures can be intimidating.

“I love going [to the US]—absolutely love it,” he said. “But the immigration people scare the crap out of me.”

Looking for solutions

The public has put the world’s biggest companies under a microscope to prove they’re making good on their commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion, and the tourism industry is no exception.

Marriott’s Capuano said groups are increasingly digging into what kind of action the hotel chain has taken on issues like sustainability, gender and race equality before booking meetings there.  Tourism organizations like NYC & Company and Destination D.C. are adding more content to their websites to showcase their cities’ multicultural attractions and commitment to diversity.

“We’re proud that Washington, D.C. is known as a destination for people to peacefully express their First Amendment rights,” Destination D.C. president Elliott Ferguson said in an emailed statement.

Another tactic to attract more people to the US is making it easier to enter. One way to do this could be growing the list of 39 countries in the US Visa Waiver Program, which allows visitors to enter the country for 90 days after filling out a quick, $14 application good for multiple trips.

For citizens of other countries, getting a tourist visa typically involves paying a bigger fee and making an appointment for an interview with immigration officials well ahead of a trip. Embassy closures due to the pandemic have led to long wait times in cities like Bogotá, where the current average wait time for an appointment to secure a visitor visa is 616 days.

“When the United States began offering Chinese tourists multiple-entry visas valid for 10 years in 2014, California reaped the benefits as spending in the state by Chinese travelers rose nearly $1 billion over the next five years,” Visit California CEO Caroline Beteta said in an emailed statement.