The Trump slump? Tourists say they're scared to visit the United States
During spring break, Canadian families used to pile the kids into a tour bus and head to New York to see the Statue of Liberty, Rockefeller Center and other attractions. It was the start of the busy season for Comfort Tour, a Toronto-based firm that usually brought between 200 and 300 tourists to New York in March.
This year, 11 people have signed up for the tours.
“Even white, Anglo-Saxon people, who are most of our customers, they are afraid of crossing the border,” lamented Al Qanun, manager and part-owner of the travel agency. “They don’t want to end up in some prison.”
The fallout from President Trump’s executive orders limiting travel from some Middle Eastern and African countries is having far-reaching implications for U.S. tourism
It is not just visitors from the countries targeted by the bans that are souring on U.S. travel; the seven countries included in Trump’s original order in January account for 0.1% of incoming travelers. Rather, an atmosphere of fear at the nation’s airports — and well-publicized incidents of visitors being detained and interrogated — are scaring off people without the slightest connection to the Muslim world.
“Think twice about visiting America if you don’t want the ‘Mem Fox’ treatment,’’ read a recent headline in the letters column of the Australian magazine Traveller, referring to the children’s book author who swore she would never return to the United States after being questioned at Los Angeles International Airport on her way to a literary conference.
The Toronto Star newspaper in late January published a commentary calling on Canadians to forgo unnecessary trips to the U.S. until Trump is out of office.
Ana Teran, a 68-year-old essayist and short-story writer from Mexico City, used to make three or four trips per year to the U.S., where she lived and studied in the past.
On her last trip, a weekend visit in mid-February to see a friend who’d had a heart attack, she said she was pulled out of a line at Washington’s Dulles International Airport and made to sit three hours before she was finally admitted. She was only briefly questioned and not given any explanation about why she was held, although she assumed it was because of her Mexican passport.
“I was going to make another trip to Miami to visit my sister, who just bought an apartment there,” said Teran. “But not now. Not after what I went through.”
An economic consulting firm that has crunched the numbers from various airline and travel booking websites projects that the U.S. will lose 6.3 million visits by the end of next year, which translates into $10.8 billion in spending. What the firm, Tourism Economics of Wayne, Pa., is calling “Trump-induced losses” could affect an estimated 90,000 Americans whose jobs are directly or indirectly dependent on tourism.
“It doesn’t take very much uncertainty or antipathy to influence decisions away from a given travel destination,” said Adam Sacks, the firm’s president. “Ultimately, destinations and companies are in the business of building a brand and a message that is welcoming .… All the ‘America first’ rhetoric in various policy areas like trade, diplomacy and immigration is conveying the exact opposite.’’
Among the cities that stand to lose the most are New York, Miami, Los Angeles and San Francisco. New York expects to lose 300,000 foreign tourists this year, a big worry because it is foreigners who drop the big money, spending about four times as much as domestic tourists, according to officials.
The city recently rolled out a new campaign that — without mentioning Trump’s name — tries to distance the city from its native son.
“People know that New York is a city of immigrants, that we pride ourselves on diversity and tolerance. But Trump is also from New York, so who knows if that has created confusion,’’ said Christopher Heywood, senior vice president of NYC & Co., the city’s official tourism agency.
Heywood was speaking from Berlin, where a major travel trade show, ITB Berlin, is underway, with the U.S. political situation one of the main topics of discussion among participants.
“It is a perception challenge,” he said. “People worry what will happen to them at the border. They worry if their cellphone will be searched, what [passwords for] websites they will be asked to jot down.”
A survey released Wednesday by the Washington-based Global Business Travel Assn. found that 45% of European business travel professionals say they are less likely to schedule meetings or events in the U.S.
“There is no doubt that these travel bans will have an impact on [economic activity] and jobs,’’ said Michael McCormick, executive director of the association.
Trump issued a new order Monday that removed Iraq from the list of countries whose citizens are barred from entering the U.S. and clarified some of the confusion arising from his original order. Nevertheless, travelers’ horror stories are mounting, getting headlines that are giving many prospective tourists pause.
“I felt like I had been physically assaulted, which is why, when I got to my hotel room, I completely collapsed and sobbed like a baby,’’ author Fox told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. after her interrogation last month. “And I’m 70 years old.”
Henry Rousso, a prominent French historian and Holocaust expert, and Muhammad Ali Jr., the son of the legendary boxer and a U.S. citizen, have also complained of aggressive airport questioning (twice, in Ali’s case).
A 30-year-old laboratory technician born in Canada to Indian immigrant parents was held for six hours last weekend and turned back when she tried to go with her friends to a spa weekend in Vermont. She told the Canadian press that her friends, who are white, were not challenged.
For Canadian tour bus operator Qanun, the difficulties at the border present a dilemma. If one passenger on a tour is refused entry, the entire bus is delayed, and the company is responsible for bringing the person back to Toronto and issuing a refund, he said.
“In 10 years in business, we only had one case where a passenger was turned away. Now we are wary,” Qanun said.
“Are we supposed to look at the names of our customers and see who is Muslim? Do we refuse to take those customers?” he asked hypothetically, since he has no intention of refusing any clients.
“I know politics is politics, but whenever Trump opens his mouth, it shakes our business.’’
Twitter: @BarbaraDemick ■