New Year, New Challenges for US Tourism

By Ranvir Gujral, CEO, Chute

There has never been a better time to be a travel marketer. Wanderlust is at an all time high, driving international visitations to record levels with tourism growth seen on every continent. As our own research has demonstrated, the emerging generation of travelers cherish experiences more than material possessions and are using their precious money to check destinations near and far off of their respective bucket lists. Now is the time for the United States, the largest travel and tourism market in the world by economic value, to be leading in tourism marketing and cementing our status as a top global destination.

This article originally appeared in Issue 3 of Sightseer Magazine. Sign up to request your free subscription today!

However, the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) recently announced that the world’s top ten fastest growing tourism cities are all in Asia. Furthermore, the United States actually dropped, from fourth to sixth, in the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Index. The report cites that the U.S. ranks relatively poorly on measures of prioritization of the travel and tourism sector, security concerns, lack of improvement and maintenance of ground infrastructure, and insufficient environmental sustainability, where the U.S. ranks 115th in the world. “The international travel market is ultra competitive, and the U.S. is falling behind,” said Roger Dow, the president and chief executive of the U.S. Travel Association, in a statement.

Add to these challenges the actions of the current administration, which have generally served the purpose of yanking the proverbial welcome mat from in front of our various points of entry. In September, the New York Times quoted Adam Sacks, President of Tourism Economics, as saying, “it’s not a reach to say the rhetoric and policies of this administration are affecting sentiment around the world, creating antipathy toward the U.S. and affecting travel behavior.”

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The total economic impact of these lost travelers this year is in the billions.

According to WTTC, direct Travel & Tourism GDP growth is expected to accelerate in 2017 and will continue to outpace global GDP growth for the seventh consecutive year. The total contribution of travel and tourism to U.S. GDP was $1.5 trillion, or 8.1% of GDP.  For an administration that talks a lot about the economy, one would think more attention would be paid to attracting visitors versus actively repelling them both with rhetoric and executive action.

However, in a golden age for travel, the United States is ceding market share. For the first five months of 2017, the latest date for which data is available, saw a nearly 3% drop in followers, including a greater than 5% drop from overseas travelers. If consistent through the end of the year, it would represent a shortfall of over two million travelers from 2016.

The total economic impact of these lost travelers this year is in the billions. But what is the total lifetime value lost? What permanent damage are we doing? If we’re deleted from travel bucket lists around the world, what impact does that have on our long-term ability to grow our economy?

While 8.1% of the nation’s economy is travel and tourism, the figure is higher in many states. A whopping 21% of Hawaii’s economy is tied to tourism. So it’s no surprise that Hawaii’s Attorney General called for an injunction on the President’s Muslim Ban, citing a “profound” and “detrimental” effect on residents, businesses, and universities in Hawaii. The effects of the ban extend far beyond the six named countries, whose visitations to the U.S. are relatively small. They impact everyone's perception of the U.S. as a travel destination. An Australian cited in the same New York Times article says, "We decided not to do a road trip across the U.S. and just to stick to blue states.  We weren’t sure what kind of reception we would have.” Why on earth would an Australian have to concern herself with blue states vs. red states?

As we head into the new year, the travel and tourism industry must demand that our leaders help promote international visitation as vital to the economy and jobs in all 50 states. One visitor’s story lost is one too many. Two million is a travesty. That’s two million stories that won’t get shared; two million fewer opportunities for visitors to fall in love with America. Every single story matters, because it’s a story that will be told, that will be spread, that may serve as inspiration for the next two million stories.