Tourism is a huge industry in the United States of America (USA), and international arrivals are at an all-time high. In April 2016 alone, international visitors to the USA spent US$21 billion on travel and tourism-related activities. Despite the current boom in international tourism, many professionals in the travel industry think that the trend could be reversed under a Trump presidency. Though the potential Trump administration has yet to indicate a particular agenda with regard to international tourism, Trump’s proposed policies on immigration and his well-publicized comments on Mexicans and Muslims in particular lead many to believe that international tourist arrivals to the USA would decrease substantially under a Trump administration.
One of Trump’s most famous (or infamous) campaign promises is to build a wall along the USA-Mexico border. Though this plan would almost certainly have the desired effect of reducing illegal immigration across the USA-Mexico border, it would probably also dissuade legitimate tourists from visiting the USA. In 2015, Mexico sent 18 million tourists to the US – almost one in four of the 75 million international tourists that visited last year. A cut of 24 per cent from the tourism industry could lead to economic losses of approximately $42.7 billion to the USA economy, primarily affecting the hotels, restaurants and entertainment venues frequented by international tourists.
On the surface, Trump’s pledge to “ban Muslims” might appear to have less potential economic impact, since travelers from the Middle East only represent 4 per cent of international arrivals to the USA. Europe, however, brings approximately 12 million international arrivals each year. While Trump has said that the Muslim Mayor of London would be permitted to visit the USA, this single exception is unlikely to convince the vast majority of European Muslims that they would be welcome.
Amanda Ross is a dual British-Egyptian citizen who usually visits Manhattan for a few months every year to take professional salsa lessons. Between accommodations, restaurants, dance lessons and excursions to salsa clubs, she spends “a lot of money,” in the USA each year, but she would be “much less likely” to visit if Trump were elected.
“I’m technically a Muslim,” Ross says. “I wouldn’t feel safe, especially if those attitudes spread throughout the American people in general.”
For Chris Seek, president and CEO of Solimar International, one of the big issues of a Trump presidency is the likely restriction of access to international tourism visas as part of Trump’s immigration reform policy. Currently, Seek argues, marketing of the USA abroad focuses on “the idea of what America represents,” more than any specific sites or monuments. The United States is being promoted abroad “as a ‘land of awesomeness’ where anything is possible,” and it is the idea of limitless possibilities that draws people here.
Under the Obama administration, this sense of possibility was supported by improving access to business and tourism visas and reducing visa waiting periods for citizens of numerous countries, notably China and Brazil. This combination has been very successful in leading to record breaking numbers of international tourists to the USA, but Seek thinks this trend is unlikely to continue under a Trump presidency.
“It sounds like he’ll be putting up more hurdles,” says Seek. “And if Brand USA is out there promoting one image of America, and the president stands for something else, how effective will that message be?”
Impact on Business Travel
Seek also sees a likely reduction of international conferences and business meetings in the USA if Trump’s immigration policies take hold. For large multinational companies with offices and personnel all over the world, the USA will be a less attractive meeting host if key personnel have difficulty obtaining travel visas. Such companies, according to Seek, might feel guilty about hosting a meeting in a country where important personnel weren’t guaranteed access. Additionally, if the USA is perceived as excluding certain groups, multinational companies “would look more favorable among employees and shareholders” if they held their meetings elsewhere, says Seek.
Angela Jones*, an American educational consultant living in Mexico City, concurs with Seek, indicating that it’s already nearly impossible for middle-class Mexican citizens to get USA tourist or business. One of her colleagues was recently denied a visa to attend a business meeting in Miami, despite her position with one of the largest publishing houses in Latin America. Such situations are only likely to increase if visa regulations are tightened beyond their current levels.
Disaster for international travel to US?
Martha Honey, founder and director of the Center for Responsible Travel, is blunt about her predictions for a Trump presidency. “It would be a disaster for international travel to the US,” Honey says, “given his stand on Mexicans and Muslims and many other groups.” In addition, travel to the US is already seen as a hassle for many international visitors. Going through immigration can be “humiliating” for many international visitors, she says, and further visa restrictions and border controls “would just up the ante.”
Depending on how far Trump goes with his anti-immigration policies, Honey could see the USA being less welcome at international sporting and cultural events, pointing out that the British parliament has actually debated whether or not Trump should be admitted into the UK at all. As a worst-case scenario, Honey sees the possibility of boycotts on travel to the USA if Trump’s anti-Mexican and anti-Muslim rhetoric leads to apartheid-like conditions for those communities in the USA.
Honey also pointed out that, in addition to decreasing tourism from Mexico to the USA, Trump’s proposed border wall would also presumably decrease USA tourism to Mexico, effectively killing the top international destination for USA tourists. As she pointed out, “Americans would also have to get over the wall.” Mexico may also likely be far less welcoming to American tourists if Mexican citizens were barred from entering the USA.
Though it’s hard to know definitively how a Trump presidency would affect tourism, one thing that is certain is that Trump has had polarizing effects on USA politics and on the perception of the USA abroad. If nothing else, a Trump presidency would likely lead to a pause in international tourism for a few months post-inauguration as the world watched to see which way the wind was blowing, and which of Trump’s proposed policies were actually inacted. Trump’s first few months in office would likely then set the tone for international arrivals—and their impact on the USA economy—for the rest of his presidency.
*Name has been changed to protect privacy
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