As reported by travel guru Arthur Frommer and others, the U.S. travel and tourism industry — one of the nation’s largest economic engines, which contributes more than $1.5 trillion to the U.S. GDP annually — is taking a potentially devastating hit in the wake of the Trump Administration’s attempted crackdown on travel from seven predominately Muslim countries as well as on immigration in general.
The statistics are stark. According to Travel Weekly magazine, a prominent trade publication, there has been a nearly seven percent decline in foreign tourism to the U.S. since late January, when the President issued his controversial (and legally questionable) executive order.
The seven percent drop-off hasn’t been limited to Muslims or to those from the seven named countries — it’s occurred across the board. In one survey, online searches for flights heading to the United States from abroad recently fell by 17 percent.
As Frommer writes: “A drop of that magnitude, if continued, would reduce the value of foreign travel within the U.S. by billions of dollars. And the number of jobs…lost would easily exceed hundreds of thousands of workers in hotels, restaurants, transportation, stores, tour operators, travel agencies and the like.”
Less money will be flowing into our national parks — which are favorites of foreign visitors — and nearby communities. Shopping — another tourist favorite — will suffer significantly. The ripple effects up and down the economy will be severe.
And there’s more: according to the Global Business Travel Association , the economic cost of reduced business travel to the U.S. in just one week this past month hit $185 million.
In Trump’s own New York City, the head of the tourism bureau said that his agency’s work to promote the city as welcoming to foreign visitors “was all in jeopardy.”
An Unfriendly Climate
In contrast to the Obama Administration — which worked to increase the volume of foreign visitors to the U.S. by, for instance, making the arrival airport process less cumbersome — the opposite is occurring under the Trump Administration.
Besides the chaos that ensued in major airports around the country in the days directly following the attempted travel ban — which will be adjudicated in the courts along with similar subsequent orders — disturbing reports are surfacing that immigration and border control officials have recently been given nearly free rein to crack down on all manner of foreign visitors, including a well-known Australian children’s book author and an eminent French historian.
The Australian children’s book author, Mem Fox, reports that she was detained and harshly interrogated by immigration officials in Los Angeles after flying in to speak at a conference. The 70-year-old author of “Possum Magic” and “Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes” was apparently deemed a security threat for having the wrong kind of visa, even though she had previously traveled dozens of times to the U.S. without a problem.
The French historian, Henry Rousso,, a Holocaust scholar, was detained for 10 hours of tough questioning and threatened with deportation after flying into Houston to speak at a conference at Texas A&M University. He says he was on the verge of being sent back to France had local immigration lawyers not intervened on his behalf. Similarly to Mem Fox, border agents questioned — incorrectly — the legitimacy of his visa
And these are well-known, highly respected people from Australia and France — think about what is no doubt happening to ordinary foreign travelers who are of different ethnicities and religions, who hail from less familiar countries and have no one to vouch for them.
I can imagine how much they’ll talk up what a great place the U.S. is to visit when they return home.
My Own Experiences
Based on my own travels, I can attest that confrontations with — shall we say, less than friendly — border and security officials can be scarier than most any adventure travel activity (admittedly, I’ve never tried bungee jumping, but I have had my share of other hair-raising experiences, which may explain why I have no hair left to raise).
One was in Los Angeles International Airport, when I was preparing to fly El Al to Tel-Aviv on a trip hosted by the Israeli government, to show off the country’s tourist attractions.
As I wanted in line to check in, I was approached by a tall young Israeli who identified himself as a security officer. He proceeded to give me the third degree until we had crossed over into the fourth or fifth degree — or so I felt.
When I produced my letter of invitation from the Israeli government, he virtually accused me of forgery. “Why would they invite you to Israel?” he demanded again and again, until it reached the point that I was ready to throw the letter in his face, give up and go home.
Finally, after this entirely public spectacle convinced me that I was indeed not headed to Israel, he smiled and announced, “OK, you’re good to go — it was nothing personal. No hard feelings?
Even though I understand Israel’s and El Al’s serious security concerns, I could never recommend flying El Al after that incident. Personally, I’ll take my chances on another airline that manages security without harassing and humiliating its passengers as a way of identifying potential flight risks.
The second incident occurred when I flew into Johannesburg, South Africa, during apartheid days. I had requested a journalist’s visa and had been told to pick it up at Jan Smuts Airport in Jo-burg.
The authorities there didn’t care what I was promised and, after intense grilling that left me feeling like a charred scrap of meat and fearing an extended stay in official custody, banished me to the airport transit hotel until I could find a flight out.
None of the above is to say that countries don’t have the right to protect their borders, keep out obvious undesirables, and maintain security.
And if they view travel writers (who, after all, usually find something nice to write about their destinations) as undesirables, so be it. After all, North Korea jails journalists who enter on tourist visas, so what’s stopping other countries from doing the same?
But I like to think we can be a bit less heavy-handed about protecting our borders than the Israel security guy from hell, officials in apartheid-era South Africa, or Kim Jong-un and his minions.
And help save the U.S. travel industry, the economy — and all those thousands of jobs — in the process.