December 9, 2016

Will President Trump Affect International Tourism to the U.S.?

  • Subline: I spoke to people in France, and they were nervous. Will that translate to fewer foreign travelers this summer?
Will American politics put a dent in foreign travel to the U.S. in 2017? Will American politics put a dent in foreign travel to the U.S. in 2017?

Here at tdg, we love working with the travel industry. No surprise, then, that most of us really like to pick up and go adventuring. I take the opportunity whenever I can, so when the stars aligned this fall for a trip to Europe, I jumped at it. A good buddy turned 50 last month, and a mutual friend of ours in France invited us to go visit her. My wife and I have been to the country several times before: we both studied there as undergraduates, and we have friends in Paris and Toulouse who were excited to meet us at cafes for good food, good wine, and good conversation. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon.

Our visit happened to coincide with the U.S. presidential elections, so all our friends naturally insisted on talking about American politics. They’re all travelers themselves, and most of them had plenty to say. As we talked, I noticed a few common themes.

  • They worry about feeling welcome on their next trip to America. Donald Trump built a lot of his popular appeal on the idea of restricting immigration and creating more aggressive screening methods for people arriving in the United States. That means visas for international travelers could become more difficult to come by. More broadly, the rise in hate crimes following the election has made our friends worried that Americans have become less welcoming of people from other countries.
  • They’re wary of - and weary from - their own politics. Europe is facing its own acrimonious political battles these days, with France’s presidential elections less than five months away. Our friends seemed a little weary - and interested in finding ways to get away from it all.
  • They say they’re putting off travel to the U.S. Some of our friends volunteered that they’d really like to come back to the States, but not anytime soon. At least one said she was re-prioritizing her list specifically because of the election, and would be traveling to southeast Asia this year instead of returning to America.

There’s nothing remotely scientific about my observations, of course - just some anecdotes coming out of a few friendly conversations (with, it should be said, primarily young urban professionals; not exactly Trump’s biggest fan base). There are much better articles on the election’s potential effect on international travel to the United States, including a good piece in the New York Times and a nice reaction summary from Skift.

But based on my very limited observations, it seems that the travel industry is justified in feeling a little cautious. For some of our tourism clients (primarily CVBs, DMOs, hotels, and resorts in South Dakota, Illinois, Wyoming, and Montana), international visitors - and primarily those from Western Europe - make up 10% to 15% of their peak season business, and some of those people are clearly feeling hesitant about coming to the United States this summer.

Will it make a difference in actual visitor numbers? It’s anyone’s guess, but if it does, the effect should be small for most hospitality and tourism businesses. People tend to make travel decisions based on entertainment and cultural offerings rather than on politics, and even well-organized boycotts on social issues usually don’t cause measurable short-term economic damage (though they can create long-term branding and PR nightmares). Even our most Trump-skeptical friend might be enticed to keep her plans and stick with a trip to the U.S. this year if she finds a good deal on airfare.

Which brings us to the factors that actually influence our travel decisions: practical concerns. Exchange rates, prices of airline tickets, and the economy at large will probably have a bigger impact on international travel this year than politics. Of course, if political wrangling starts wreaking havoc with the real world - making visas more difficult to obtain, creating swings in international exchange rates, or making travelers feel less safe - we’d definitely see a drop in international visitor numbers in 2017.