International travelers cite politics as factor in US trips

FILE - In this Nov. 26, 2014, file photo, passengers leave a departure area after arriving at Logan International Airport in Boston. Some international travelers are citing politics as a factor in whether to visit the U.S. this year, according to survey research by the tourism marketing agency Brand USA. Other new data shows that a slowdown in international arrivals to the U.S. began last spring and continued through August, likely due to the strong U.S. dollar and sluggish economies elsewhere. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File)

NEW YORK — Some international travelers are citing politics as a factor in whether to visit the U.S. this year, according to survey research by the tourism marketing agency Brand USA.

The findings add to existing concerns about the tourism industry. Other new data shows that a slowdown in international arrivals to the U.S. began last spring and continued through August, likely due to the strong U.S. dollar and sluggish economies elsewhere.

POLITICS EMERGING AS A CONCERN FOR TRAVELERS

A survey for Brand USA asked travelers from 11 countries how the political climate influenced the likelihood of them visiting the U.S. in the next 12 months.

Those saying the political climate made them less likely to visit increased from December to February among travelers from every country surveyed but China.

Travelers from Mexico registered the most concern over political sentiment as a factor against visiting.

Travelers from Canada, Germany, Australia, the United Kingdom and France registered moderate sensitivity over political sentiment.

Travelers from India, Japan, Brazil and South Korea were the least sensitive to the U.S. political climate as a factor against visiting, but their likelihood of visiting also decreased over the three-month period, just less dramatically than the others.

Chinese travelers were the only nationality in the survey who said the U.S. political climate made them more likely to visit.

Brand USA surveys typically provide a multiple-choice list of factors influencing travel plans. Last summer, respondents began writing in issues related to politics as a factor. "So we created a discreet option for that and began to measure that," Brand USA economist Carroll Rheem said in an interview.

When international travelers were asked in December and again in February "what if any impact the political climate has on their likelihood to visit the U.S. ... over the course of time we saw an increase in that as a reason for people being discouraged from visiting the U.S.," she said.

ARRIVALS DATA

International arrivals to the U.S. last year experienced the first sustained decline since the U.S. economy began to recover from the recession, according to newly released and revised arrivals data from the U.S. Department of Commerce National Travel and Tourism Office.

Between April and August of 2016, international arrivals to the U.S. dropped nearly 4 percent compared with the same five months of 2015, declining from 17.8 million to 17.1 million, the data shows. Prior to the second quarter of 2016, international arrivals to the U.S. had climbed every quarter year-over-year since late 2009.

It takes months for arrivals data to accurately be compiled from all U.S. international airports and border crossings, so whether the downward trend continued into fall 2016 and winter 2017 won't be clear for some time.

BOOKING DATA

Despite concerns raised by arrivals and survey data, Rheem said preliminary data on airline bookings to the U.S. for 2017 shows continued growth. That booking data "is consistent with what we're hearing from the trade," Rheem said. "They've said things are stable if not growing. So some of the headlines out there about dramatic downward shifts or challenges in bookings are not really consistent with what we've been seeing in that data."

Rheem cautioned that it's "hard to tell" what the impact of the political concerns showing up in surveys might be. Arrivals data shows what's already happened, but surveys merely hint at future behavior.

"There's a good group of these people who have concerns who have a wait-and-see approach" about vacation planning, she said. "And there are others who are somewhat impacted or slightly negative but at the same time will end up booking. It's not a complete deterrent, but it's a bit of a concern." Sentiment versus booking behavior "don't always break in the same direction," she said.

Brand USA adjusts its marketing strategies in response to survey trends in an effort to make travelers feel secure about concerns that might prevent a visit. One strategy involves inviting "influencers" — individuals with large online or social-media followings — to visit the U.S. and then tell stories about their (hopefully positive) experiences.

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