Decline in US travel spurs business push for visitors

Decline in US travel spurs business push for visitors
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The United States is open for business.

That’s the message a new industry group, the Visit U.S. Coalition, wants to send to other countries amid a decline in the number of international travelers coming to the United States.

The U.S. Travel Association, joined by nine other trade associations, is spearheading the effort, which centers on working with the Trump administration and getting agencies to collaborate on a common set of policies.

“We’ve looked at an administration that has been quite distracted with getting tax reform done” and working on health care, Roger Dow, the travel group’s chief executive, said Tuesday. “Now we think the time is right.”

“We don’t need to invent new policies,” Dow said during a conference call, adding that changes could manifest in as little as six months — just in time for summer travel season. “We need to let people know that they are welcome.”

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The Visit U.S. Coalition includes several of the most powerful trade associations in Washington, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Hotel & Lodging Association, the National Retail Federation, the National Restaurant Association and the American Gaming Association.

Officials from some of those groups have already met with executive branch officials, including Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonTina Fey returns to ‘Saturday Night Live’ as Sarah Palin with advice for Trump staffers Trump nominates Pacific Command head as ambassador to South Korea Trump’s offer could be just what Pyongyang was seeking MORE and Transportation Department Secretary Elaine ChaoElaine Lan ChaoMcConnell brother-in-law picked by Trump to lead pension agency Washington celebrates Bret Baier's new book The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by CVS Health — Trump’s love-hate relationship with the Senate MORE, about the travel trend.

In the first seven months of 2017, international travel to the United States decreased 4 percent over the previous year. That’s the continuation of a decrease that began in March 2016. In prior years, the number of global travelers to the U.S. had increased each year, but at a slowing pace.

“My sense is, the No. 1 factor [for the decline] would be the value of the dollar, though that peaked in value right at the start of 2017,” Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, told The Hill. “The U.S. looked very expensive for travelers.”

“I would be surprised, as the year wore on, if the administration’s anti-globalization stance didn’t have some impact on global travel plans,” he said. “People from other parts of the world having to make the choice between the United States and somewhere else may have thought twice about coming to the U.S.”

But Zandi and industry executives say a complex mix of factors, including an improvement in the global economy and an increase in the number of European low-cost airlines, have also contributed to the decline.

In addition to the administration’s travel ban, Trump has made disparaging comments about other countries, most recently referring to some African nations, El Salvador and Haiti as “shithole countries.”

While President TrumpDonald John TrumpPompeo to outline post-deal strategy on Iran Trump asking aides whether he should proceed with North Korea summit: report Stopping Robert Mueller to protect us all MORE’s comments have been “not helpful,” Dow said, “this isn’t about rhetoric, it’s about policy, it’s about jobs … it’s about the economy.”

Neil Bradley, an executive vice president and the chief policy officer at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said touting the economic impact of international travelers is key to success.

As the number of visitors to the United States has decreased, so has America’s market share in overall global travel.

Long-haul passenger travel increased almost 8 percent between 2015 and 2017, but the portion of people coming to the United States decreased from 13.6 percent to 11.9 percent during that same period — the first such drop in more than a decade.

If the market share had stayed at 2015 levels, according to research prepared for the coalition, there would have been 7.4 million more visitors from around the world to the U.S. and $32.2 billion in additional spending.

“Fewer visitors means fewer hotel stays, fewer meals eaten in our restaurants, fewer goods purchased in our retail stores and fewer visits to our national attractions,” said Katherine Lugar, American Hotel & Lodging Association’s chief executive. “It also means fewer American jobs and a loss to our economy.”

“We’ve been down this road before,” said Geoff Freeman, the leader of the American Gaming Association on the industry call, referring to the period after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. “There were a lot of lessons learned during that experience.”

Industry executives say there are several steps the administration could take to make travel to the U.S. easier and more inviting, including expanding the visa waiver program, increasing the number of people processing visas at the State Department and boosting the number of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officers.

Dow noted on Tuesday that his group worked with previous administrations to decrease the wait time for international travelers waiting for a travel visa to be contacted for an interview from 130 days down to two or three days.

Noting the Trump administration’s push to secure the borders, the executives all stressed that travel need not undermine U.S. security

“The Visit U.S. Coalition is founded on the principle that we can have strong security but at the same time welcome robust numbers of international business and leisure travelers,” Dow said in a release about the launch. “We can do both.”

On the call, Freeman added: “We’re closed for terrorists, we’re open for business. That second part has not been heard loudly.”

Now that the dollar is weaker, making it cheaper to come to America, Zandi said, it could be a test for whether the Trump administration is a driver to a further decrease in tourism and business travel. 

“This year should be a boom year in travel to the United States, but if it’s not, then the smoking gun would be the administration’s policy toward the rest of the world,” he said.