Viewpoint: Trump’s misguided attacks on foreign travel to the US backfire

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Karen Rubin, Columnist

Travel is the greatest force for good on the planet. It is an economic lifeline that preserves heritage and environment, gives a livelihood to people so they can stay in their communities, it forges people-to-people understanding and relationships, decreasing conflict beyond what diplomats can ever hope to achieve. International travel to the United States is the second highest export, lowering the dreaded trade deficit.

But like every good thing that America ever represented, that would bring people together with peace and understanding rather than promote conflict and competition, travel is under attack by Trump.

As a candidate, Trump pledged to ban all Muslims from the U.S. When that was found to be unconstitutional because the policy is blatantly racist and uses religion to brand all individuals with pre-crimes without actual charges, his administration lied to the Supreme Court by justifying the ban on seven Muslim-majority countries based on a national emergency until the government could come up with better ways to vet. What emergency could it be if three years later, there have been no changes to vetting?

Now, with Trump desperate to divert attention from impeachment and dredge up what he perceives as his 2016 campaign “hits”, he is now proposing to impose travel restrictions on seven more countries: Belarus, Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, Nigeria, Sudan, Tanzania – countries that are either majority Muslim or would be pushed closer into Russia’s orb.

“It makes us less safe, betrays our values, we won’t have enough labor, so it makes no sense economically,” said Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “But most significantly, it betrays who we are as a nation, continues to feed the global narrative that Trump hates Muslims, and promotes recruitment among terror groups.”

What’s not on the list? Saudi Arabia, the country most consistently responsible for the most heinous terror attacks in US history: the September 11 attacks that took more than 3,000 lives, and the gunman in Pensacola just weeks ago, and the brutal assassination of Washington Post columnist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi. But no sanctions against Saudi Arabia, no ban on Saudi travelers.

Now Trump is about to ban pregnant women who are not from one of the 39 visa-waiver countries – that is primarily non-European, non-white. The visa officer, just looking at a woman, can decide she may be pregnant and be coming to the U.S. for the purpose of “birth tourism”. That means she can be rejected even if she is coming for medical treatment to save the baby’s life or is just overweight. Since visas may be valid for 10 years, that means any woman could be barred just for being of child-bearing age.

Overnight, without consultation or a heads-up, Trump stepped up sanctions against Cuba, banning Americans on cruise ships from visiting, costing the cruise industry as many as 800,000 passengers (many already at the port). Cuba sanctions merely demonstrate Trump’s wanton cruelty because the policy does not hurt “the state” at all, only the Cuban people – scores of entrepreneurs that sprung up when Obama opened to travel. Cuba was moving to a China-style capitalist economy which could only move sentiment closer to Americans. (Note: Americans can still travel to Cuba under programs designed to help the Cuban people.)

On the other hand, Trump shows little concern for what is true domestic terrorism: the scourge of gun violence. February 1 marks the beginning of National Gun Violence Survivors Week.

It is astonishing to consider that 58 percent of American adults have experienced gun violence or know someone they care for who has.

Last year posted a record number of mass shootings, 41. That’s almost once a week, on top of the 100 people who are killed each day with guns – the equivalent of a 9/11 each month.

The epidemic of gun violence, which should be handled as a public health threat here, is considered a threat by other nations, many of which have issued travel advisories against traveling here, including Japan, Germany, New Zealand, Ireland, The Bahamas, Uruguay, and Venezuela.

These developments – Trump’s antagonism to China and Europe on trade policy; his racist travel restrictions on Muslim-majority and non-white nations; and general concern over wanton violence in the U.S. – have contributed to a one-percent decline in international visits to the US for 2019.

Take China, for example. In 2018, three million Chinese visited the U.S., 5.7 percent fewer than in 2017. In the first nine months of 2019, travel dropped a further 4.7 percent. Chinese visitors spend on average $6,700 during their stays, 50 percent more than other international visitors, so you do the math of what the “unwelcome” mat is doing to the US economy.

While global long-haul travel is projected to grow an average of 4.8 percent annually through 2023, the pace of U.S. growth is projected to be just half of that, at 2.4 percent; this will further diminish the U.S. share of the total long-haul travel market from its 2015 high of 13.7 percent to just 10.4 percent by 2023. That means other countries will benefit from improved ties.

The decline from the 2015 high, has cost the economy $59 billion and 120,000 jobs through 2018. The 2019-2023 decline in market share would cost a further $78 billion in visitor spending and 130,000 American jobs. Thanks, Trump!

“International inbound travel is the No. 2 U.S. export, and making its pace of growth a national priority could be a difference-maker in helping to keep the country out of a recession,” said U.S. Travel Association President and CEO Roger Dow. “Right now, the country is not capturing the full economic potential of overseas travel.”

The travel industry generates $2.5 trillion in economic output and supports 15.7 million jobs. It is unfathomable why its many trade associations do not use their collective clout to protect one of America’s most sacred freedoms, one that should be exported around the world, Freedom to Travel.

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