Don’t Be Alarmed

Travel Advisories v. The United States of America

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.


  1. Apart from your very good arguments, don’t underestimate the trouble just getting through the border as a factor as well. A Danish friend of mine had to fill out a (for him quite stupid) form on the floor(!) of an office and the queue was far too long for him, after flying in from Europe. Other stories about giving logins to your social media accounts and confiscated computers do not help either. The US is no longer the place to go for comfortable well-off turists who just want to have fun and relax. And then the bonkers tipping rules, of course…

  2. The last time I visited NYC the queue took almost three hours to go through the customs at JFK. I traveled on UK passport with a valid ESTA visa. I had photo & fingerprints taken. Now that’s what I call a warm welcome! By the way, the cost of that six day long visit for the two of us was close to eight thousand USD.
    Just sayin’ .

  3. Umm the level of gun violence in America is a reason not to visit. That is a valid point foreign governments are making. I live in Chicago so I have experience. When people tell me other countries are safe I have to eyeroll because of gun culture in America that makes it possible for you to be in school, in a mall or at a concert where you could be shot and killed for no reason.

  4. Maybe.. if I was a prototypical middle aged white male, English as a first language and a neutral accent, affluent, and obviously well-insured, that would be okay..? Otherwise how could anyone reasonably expect border control, law-enforcement, emergency services and concerned members of the public NOT to view me with loathing and suspicion? The perception of the United States of America as a society which isn’t even civil towards its own citizens, let alone outsiders, just augments the attraction for going there.

  5. In my surrounding (international community in Geneva) one argument I hear often is the outrage of seeing almost every year the increase by 5% of what most people consider an absurd habit, of the ‘compulsory tip’ for almost every task. Being imposed on the bill 25% (what seems to be the norm now in New York) of the cost of a meal is an obvious absurdity as it has no bearing on the actual ‘work’ provided by the waiter/waitress. And being treated rudely if one does not match expectation is really annoying. This will not prevent people from visiting, but it is one argument taken into account when deciding where to go for vacation

  6. After planning a massive And expensive trip to New York, Vegas and Miami…friends started giving me tips on what to expect. I grew very uncomfortable at the concept of being interrogated and treated poorly rather than being welcomed as a guest. The thought of being harassed because of my race and religion seemed savage, so I decided to cancel 2 days before travel and went to Asia instead and had an absolute ball. The perception is real, and not made up…it’s based on an accumulation of experiences, so no need to sugar coat a fact anymore.

  7. I’m disappointed that everything is so politicized. Propaganda is the key to it all. Media is now indoctrination rather than information. And I’m disappointed that Tablet decided to further spread the negativity.

    Safe and joyous travels to all!

  8. It’s pretty simple really. I’ve chosen to not visit the US in the past three years, instead visiting Japan twice and Europe once. These include work conferences where I might have easily chosen the US. Why? Border control stories. Gun violence. Trumpism. And more. America ha slits it’s shine. There is a whole other world of welcoming so why bother.

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