Don’t Be Alarmed

Foreign travel to the United States is slumping. Travel advisories issued by other countries can give a clue as to why. They can also be a bit ridiculous.

No one’s visiting the United States anymore.

If you follow some of the alarmist reports from tourism and travel agencies, you might start to get that feeling. In 2018, almost 80 million visitors traveled to the United States from foreign countries. If that sounds like a lot, it is. In fact, it’s a record high. And yet, it was also the smallest share of the international travel market the U.S. had held since 2006.

That means the travel industry’s growing worldwide, and it’s leaving the United States behind.

Other statistics are downright depressing. In 2015, visits to the U.S. made up 13.7% of global travel. That number keeps dipping, and it’s now “forecast to slip further to 10.9% by 2022, amounting to another 41 million fewer foreign tourists,” according to an August report. “Under that scenario, travelers would spend $180 billion less and there would be 266,000 fewer jobs than if the U.S. maintained its market share.”

Economics are to blame, partly. A strong dollar makes America less of a bargain to foreign travelers. But there are more factors at work. As any traveler, marketer, or head of state could tell you, intangible perceptions of a place have a tangible impact on whether people want to come visit. Over the last few years, you may have noticed, the United States has gone through a few changes that might affect its reputation on the world’s travel brochure. The trendy term for the phenomenon, used from travel journals to Forbes, has been the “Trump Slump.”

But, of course, that’s speculation. If you really want to know how foreigners, or their governments, view your country, the first place to look is their travel advisories.

See America
See America posters

First of all, travel advisories aren’t always overwhelmingly negative. Sometimes they’re more on the frivolous side of the scale, reflecting cultural differences or, in some cases, god knows what. Writing their citizens about the United States, Australia has warned about harsh fines for jaywalking, Italy for scams in Times Square, and France for prudish attitudes toward beachside nudity.

And of all the financial pitfalls of which to warn their citizens, the U.K., for whatever reason, once specifically called out the cost of gasoline near the Orlando airport.

But travel advisories can also underline the more obvious failings of the government, with prospective travelers to America receiving persistent warnings to buy special travel insurance to cover exorbitant health care costs or to be wary of racial tensions. In response to Arizona’s much-maligned 2010 law requiring immigrants to carry legal documents, Mexico’s foreign ministry told their citizens to assume they “could be harassed and questioned without cause at any moment.” During Black Lives Matter protests in 2016, the Bahamas advised young men to “exercise extreme caution in affected cities in their interactions with the police.”

Even more consistently, Ireland, Germany, Canada, and New Zealand have all warned their citizens about gun violence in America over the years. As far back as 2015, Australia’s travel advisory for the US noted that “incidences where a firearm is involved” were more likely than in Australia.

After the most recent spate of mass shootings this summer, the list grew to include Japan, Uruguay, Venezuela, and even the human rights group Amnesty International.

Amnesty International
Amnesty International Advisory

Which led a Washington Post op-ed to ask the question — does Amnesty International usually issue travel advisories? And to answer the question: no, they do not.

Despite all the dangers the world over, Amnesty International has only ever issued a travel warning against the United States. As the op-ed quickly concluded, their point wasn’t really to protect possible travelers. After all, Amnesty International has no expertise in assessing travel risk. Instead, it was to a way to raise awareness, elevate an issue through shock value, and to get good press. It was, in effect, “more gimmick than useful advice.”

40,000 retweets later, it was clear it had worked.

Such is the power of the travel advisory, sensational and instantly consequential, to grab the public imagination.

Dump Trump
Trump and China at G20 summit

The reasons for the downturn in international travel to America are complicated, but a constantly cited example is the trade war with China, and it’s another place where we see travel warnings at perhaps their most politicized. In 2018, the number of Chinese visitors in the United States went down after 15 years of sustained growth. Again, hard economics are involved — a devalued yuan against the dollar — but the downturn may too be more of an issue of perception than anything else, as Chinese nationals choose to visit countries with less tense relationships to their own.

One article in the New York Times quoted travel professionals and economists, who blamed “inflammatory rhetoric” from the trade war for the dearth of Chinese visitors to the States. It’s not hard to track. Just a month after President Trump tweeted his intention to levy massive tariffs on Chinese imports, China issued a travel warning to its citizens regarding “harassment” at the hands of U.S. authorities.

As some experts have pointed out, the politicization of travel is a constant worry. Pointing to a case “where China essentially weaponized tourism” in a 2017 dispute with South Korea, one consultant explained how pressure from Chinese officials — for instance, forcing travel agencies to cancel excursions — led Chinese tourism to South Korea to drop by 50 percent.

If the same happened in America, speculated one “worst-case scenario” report, it would “mean a $18 billion hit to the American travel industry.”

It’s an extreme case. But that travel can be used as a weapon shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. In fact, China’s 2019 advisory came just about a year after one issued in the summer of 2018. Among similar trade disputes, the government had warned its tourists about “expensive medical bills, the threats of public shootings and robberies” in the United States.

How did U.S. officials react? Without missing a beat, they issued a travel warning against China.