Viewpoint: Trump’s trade war, policies take toll on international travel receipts

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Karen Rubin

On a bike tour through South Dakota’s Badlands and Black Hills through repurposed rail trails and mining towns, among the delightful people who hailed from Vermont, Missouri, Colorado, Maryland and Illinois, was a fellow who described himself as a libertarian who quoted Mark Twain, who, I was reminded, was a travel writer:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime,” Twain wrote in “The Innocents Abroad.”

Among Trump’s destructive policies – to the environment, to the planet, to the economy, to world peace and prosperity – has been all that he has done to undermine international travel, starting with his unconstitutional and racist Muslim Travel Ban and his malicious reinstatement of travel restrictions to Cuba.

But it is more than world peace and the progress of civilization – it is the precious economy (and his 2020 election) which Trump has put at risk. Indeed, travel and tourism, which generated $2.5 trillion for the U.S. economy in 2018, supporting 15.7 million American jobs, is the canary-in-the-gold-mine of economic indicators.

Lost in the appropriate hysteria over the tariffs and trade wars and the adverse impacts on farmers and global recession, is the fact that international travel has traditionally produced a positive trade balance helping reduce the trade deficit.

International tourism is up everywhere but to the United States. The Washington Post cited figures from the World Tourism Organization, a United Nations agency, showing the number of international tourist arrivals around the world reached 1.4 billion last year, a 6 percent increase, with a further 3 to 4 percent increase forecast for this year.

But in the first half of 2019, the number of international visitors coming to America has actually dropped 1.7 percent, according to the Commerce Department’s National Travel and Tourism Office. (https://travel.trade.gov/view/m-2017-I-001/index.asp)

A big reason for that is a significant drop in Chinese visitors.

“A new battlefront has opened in the trade war between the United States and China: the $1.6 trillion American travel industry,” the New York Times reported. “A Los Angeles hotel long popular with Chinese travelers saw a 23 percent decline in visits last year and another 10 percent so far this year… And in San Francisco, busloads of Chinese tourists were once a mainstay of one fine jewelry business; over the last few years, the buses stopped coming.”

In New York City, where China is the second-largest source of foreign visitors and Chinese tourists spend nearly twice as much as other foreign visitors, the number of Chinese tourists fell 12 percent in the first quarter. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which largely depends on foreign tourists to pay its bills, has seen the share of its 7 million visitors a year coming from abroad falling from 34 percent to 28 percent.

“Trade wars with China could cost the country 1.9 million inbound visitors and $11 billion in spending between 2018 and 2020, according to Tourism Economics, part of Oxford Economics. Through July, travel from China is down 3.7 percent compared with last year, according to Commerce Department figures. That’s on top of a drop last year, the report says,” the Washington Post reported.

U.S. global long-haul travel market share is on a four-year slide since its previous high of 13.7 percent in 2015 – a tribute to all the Obama Administration did to ease access and promote visiting the USA – falling to 11.7 percent in 2018. The decline in market share represents losses to the US economy of 14 million international visitors, $59 billion in international traveler spending, and 120,000 U.S. jobs.

But the market-share drop is now forecast by the US Travel Association to continue, dipping under 11 percent by 2022. That would mean an economic hit of 41 million visitors, $180 billion in international traveler spending and 266,000 jobs.

Trump’s trade war with China is one big reason for the drop in foreign travel receipts, but Trump’s policies, his bullying of allies like England, France and Germany which are traditionally key generators of travelers to the US, his Muslim Travel Ban, anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric degrading foreigners, his America First policies pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement and the Iran Nuclear Pact have turned off many from visiting. Foreigners don’t feel welcome and/or want to show their opposition to Trump.

Another reason is rampant gun violence. Foreigners do not feel safe. After the most recent spate of mass shootings in at the Garlic Festival in California, in Dayton, Ohio and El Paso and Odessa, Texas, more countries – Japan, Venezuela and Uruguay – joined Germany, Ireland, Canada and New Zealand in issuing travel warnings against visiting the United States. China warned its citizens about traveling to the United States in June, naming gun violence, robberies and theft as risks, the Washington Post reported.

Uruguay, warned of the “the indiscriminate possession of firearms by the population” and told travelers to avoid taking children to crowded places like theme parks and sporting events. New Zealand’s travel advisory warns “Attacks could be indiscriminate, including in places frequented by foreigners…A number of politically motivated attacks have occurred in recent years, causing multiple deaths and injuries.”

This is Trump’s Brand USA.

“Most Americans believe the U.S. should be the world leader in everything—and with all the incredible things you can see and do in every corner of this country, that is especially true of international tourism,” said Tori Barnes, executive vice president for public affairs and policy at the U.S. Travel Association, a trade group. “But reclaiming our market share is not just a matter of pride—it is economically vital, and can help sustain our GDP expansion when we’re seeing some other headwinds on the horizon. Recapturing our market share should, by all rights, be a national priority.”

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