U.S. travel industry launches plan to reverse tourism decline

Travel industry representatives sounded an alarm this week over a long-term decline in international tourism to the U.S. and said they want to work with the Trump administration to reverse the trend.

Organizers of the new Visit U.S. Coalition said the decline started in 2015 and repeatedly said they are not blaming President Donald Trump, who has been criticized by some in the travel industry for spurring a "Trump slump" with anti-foreigner rhetoric and policies.

Instead, the new coalition blamed the tourism downturn on factors like the strong U.S. dollar, complex visa requirements and low-cost air travel that boosts travel elsewhere.

Coalition representatives were short on specific proposals to reverse the decline but mentioned making it easier for foreigners to get visas and the need for more welcoming messages to balance out stronger border security.

"People misinterpreted a lot of our security protocols to be an unwelcoming message," said Geoff Freeman, CEO of the American Gaming Association, a member of the coalition. Freeman added that the U.S. can be a "welcoming and secure destination simultaneously."

Statistics cited by the coalition showed America's share of global travel fell from 13.6 percent to 11.9 percent between 2015 and 2017. The U.S. was one of only two destinations in the top dozen global markets to see a decline in long-haul inbound travel since 2015. The other country that lost market share was Turkey, where tourism dropped after repeated terror attacks.

"We're falling behind," said Roger Dow, CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, the nonprofit organization that spearheaded a conference call Tuesday announcing the Visit U.S. Coalition. He said the drop represents 7.4 million fewer visitors from around the world, which translates to "100,000 American jobs not created."

"Travel and tourism is our country's second largest export," said Katherine Lugar, CEO of the American Hotel & Lodging Association. "We can't afford to lose ground to other countries." She said the average overseas traveler spends $4,400 visiting the U.S., adding that "fewer visitors mean fewer hotel stays, fewer meals, fewer goods purchased in our retail stores and fewer visits to our national attractions."

Travel is a top 10 employer in 49 states and Washington, D.C., and international travel is the country's No. 1 service export and No. 2 export overall, according to the U.S. Travel Association.

Other organizations in the Visit U.S. Coalition include the International Association of Exhibitions and Events, National Restaurant Association and the National Retail Federation.

Dow said he'd like to see more personnel at visa offices and customs so that people who want to come here "don't stand in line for two to three hours." He said coalition representatives have been meeting with government agencies including the U.S. State Department, the Commerce Department and the Transportation Department.

Dow noted, as an example of how travel trends are not solely determined by politics, that visitors from Canada have increased even though President Donald Trump "isn't particularly popular" in Canada. The uptick in tourists from north of the border is likely due to the strengthening of Canadian currency against the U.S. dollar.

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