By Ray O'Reilly
Left without a say in the election of Donald Trump, a new breed of conscientious objectors are making their mark on the USA. Foreign tourists are voting with their feet and going elsewhere.
Thursday 12 October 2017
Bad news is usually, well, bad news for tourism, especially if it stretches out over months and even years. Holidaymakers are skittish about things like terrorists taking pot shots at them on a beach, while many others let their conscience speak for them when they choose a destination.
The latest victim of this form of conscientious objection is the United States. Reports of international tourism arrival figures there tell no lies. Experts at Tourism Economics predicted earlier in the year that the USA could expect 6.3 million fewer visitors this year. That's an 8.2%, or €8.5 billion, slump on 2016. New York alone was predicted to lose up 250,000 tourists in 2017.
Arrival figures for the first quarter alone showed a sharp decline of tourists from such countries as Switzerland (-28%) and Belgium (-20%), where I live. Theories and even catchy names abound for this, but what they all agree on is that the divisiveness of the Trump presidency is by no means solely a domestic socio-political phenomenon. It casts a worldwide shadow. The headlines that probably cover it best are the ‘Trump slump' or ‘Trump dump', which come with their own memes, images and even apps. But my personal preference would be the ‘Trump thump' as the impact is far more than a slap to the world's face.
Global citizens, those who observe developments at home and abroad but were unable to vote for the so-called leader of the free world, have found another way to vote… with their feet. With total tourist arrivals currently down by 10% on last year, the rest of the world is saying ‘no' to Trump antics, ‘no' to global bullying, ‘no' to social division.
The dip in US tourism is not part of a global downward trend. Destinations worldwide welcomed nearly 600 million international tourists in the first six months of 2017. That's around 36 million more than in the same period last year, according to the UN's World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), making the January-June figures the strongest half-year performance since 2010. Growth was strongest in the Middle East (+9%), Europe (+8%) and Africa (+8%), followed by Asia and the Pacific (+6%).
“The first half of 2017 shows healthy growth in an increasingly dynamic and resilient tourism market, including a strong recovery in some of the destinations impacted by security challenges last year,” said UNWTO Secretary-General Taleb Rifai. In his statement, he went on to talk about “tourism-phobia” and local protests against the summer “invasion of tourists” in the likes of Barcelona and Venice.
This is something the Big Apple didn't have to deal with this year. And New Yorkers can probably look forward to an equally quiet Thanksgiving and Christmas, unless their president pockets his smartphone once and for all, and his die-hard enabler and the executive finally clue up to the further harm he can do to the States, and other regions.
To anyone who would listen in the days and weeks after Donald Trump's election, I made no secret of my views of a country that elects a demagogue to the highest office. ‘There is no way in hell I would set foot in the USA now,” I'd say, partially for entertainment purposes but genuine in intent. Friends would scoff as they jetted off to their Atlanta meeting or Las Vegas team-building. I was beginning to think I was the only one who cared. How else can you make a statement, when you're not consulted on the running of the world?
To go or not to go?
If the Trump government can block entry to the nationals of myriad countries, in the twisted logic that ‘everyone wants to be in the USA', then the only way to respond is to say ‘I don't want to be there' – a good old-fashioned boycott like that of the Iranian Oscar-nominated film director Asghar Farhadi who wanted no special treatment faced with Trump's visa ban or the NHL stars refusing to visit the White House. And it seems now that many more, millions more, agree with the director of The Salesman, which took home the Oscar for best foreign film, and footballer Stephen Curry's decision.
‘Guilt-edged tourism' like this, where people are motivated by more than sun, sand and sea, is not typically applied to developed western countries. It tends to work more for the likes of China, Myanmar and North Korea, where the choice whether to go or not to go is weighted by arguments for and against the regime. Do you support the economy and encourage more open policies through engagement with regular folk, like tourists from Belgium, or does that merely prop up dictators in desperate need of the hard currency would-be tourists bring? It's a tough one … usually.
But in this case, the ‘guilt' is blunted by the fact that ordinary Americans, showing signs of easing out of the economic doldrums, are not likely to be directly hurt by any decision to stay away, to spend hard-earned savings somewhere else. This is probably more than you could say for North Koreans under the (seemingly necessary) additional economic sanctions now in place. No, the net effect is more symbolic, until enough right-minded people express their displeasure with the bully presidency before something really bad happens, some bad news that no one can spin or undo.
The travel sector is typically robust enough to bounce back when the source of the pain or the ‘bad news' stops coming in. It can take some time – the full term of a presidency, for example – or it can go much faster; as fast at it takes to Tweet ‘we're not necessarily seeking regime change'.
We'll see. But in the meantime, keep voting with your feet, say ‘No!' to tourism in America. Come to Belgium instead.