The United Nations World Tourism Organization announced last week that Spain overtook the United States as the second-most visited destination in the world (France remains number one) in 2017.
The U.S. welcomed 72.9 million foreign visitors last year — down about four percent from the previous year’s 75.9 million.
Some have dubbed the decline in foreign tourism the “Trump Slump,” citing the administration’s January 2017 ban against travelers from seven predominantly-Muslim countries. But the number actually began decreasing back in 2016. (A record was set in 2015 when the United States welcomed 77.5 million foreign visitors.)
Chris Thompson, the president and CEO of Brand USA, the destination marketing organization for the United States, believes there are other, more complicated contributions to the decline in tourism.
“Tourism has a special ability to transcend politics,” Thompson told Travel + Leisure. “The United States continue to be an aspirational destination. What happens in Washington has an effect but so do many more things.”
Thompson cited the strong American dollar, unprecedented growth rates, and increased competition as three significant causes of the drop.
When it becomes more expensive to visit a country, fewer tourists arrive. The strength of the U.S. dollar has been growing since 2011, with spectacular growth in 2014. A strong dollar means less tourists — particularly from Canada — are enticed to visit.
Additionally, the early ‘10s saw double-digit growth in visitation from foreign markets like China. That trend of unprecedented growth was unable to sustain itself — however that doesn’t mean visitation has stagnated. Last year, the U.S. still welcomed more Chinese visitors than the year before, Thompson said.
And, as airlines continue to open new markets and routes, other, lesser-visited destinations enter the market and create competition.
Last week, 10 associations — including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Restaurant Association — launched the “Visit U.S. Coalition.” The coalition hopes to rekindle foreign tourist interest in the United States.
“Travel and tourism is our country’s second largest export and we can’t afford to lose ground to other countries,” the president and CEO of American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA), Katherine Lugar, said in a statement. “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. It also means fewer American jobs and a loss to our economy.”
Since 2015, the U.S. has lost 4 million visitors, the Visit U.S. Coalitions says, which adds up to a loss of $32.2 billion in additional spending and 100,000 new jobs. The coalition hopes to “partner with President Trump and Congress to increase travel spending by international visitors and achieve the administration’s goal of a 3 percent increase in GDP.”
While the Trump Administration’s main goal may be to increase GDP and create jobs, it’s impossible to do so without recognizing that foreign perception has a direct effect on domestic well-being.
The Pew Research Center found that unfavorable views of the U.S. in 37 countries increased 13 percent in the six months that Trump was in office. In response to a New York Times post, Europeans “overwhelmingly cited the Trump administration and its policies as reasons for avoiding or canceling trips to the United States,” according to the paper.
While the Trump presidency may not have single-handedly caused the tourism slump, its effect cannot be completely discounted.