The U.S. travel and tourism business experienced a steep drop in inbound international visitors this year. The decline was widely expected in response to the Trump administration's early travel ban policies and perceived hostility towards certain regions, but many experts were pleasantly surprised when it failed to materialize, with tourism from outside the U.S. even appearing to grow.
As is often the case with such research, some data takes longer to come in and be incorporated into the numbers. As more information became available, it seems that the U.S. inbound tourism numbers did in fact begin to drop precipitously in February, according to the latest data from the U.S. Travel Association's (USTA) Travel Trends Index.
"We kept projecting drops in international visitation, and they kept not materializing," said David Huether, the USTA's senior vice president for research, in a statement. "However, we recently were able to access new data inputs for the TTI to give us an even more comprehensive picture, and sure enough, the international travel segment has been far weaker than what was initially shown."
The drop in foreigners visiting the United States was steepest in February (6.8 percent) and March (8.2 percent), dipping into an actual decline in visitors rather than a decrease in growth. And while there was an uptick in April and May, USTA economists attribute it to the Easter holidays rather than an indication of a turnaround -- an opinion supported by a return to declines in June and July.
With one in nine American jobs supported by travel, and inbound international travel the No. 2 overall U.S. export, USTA President and CEO Roger Dow warned that the U.S. economy cannot afford a continuing decline in the travel and tourism business.
"The international travel market is ultra-competitive, and the U.S. is falling behind," Dow said. "Inbound travel to the U.S. already went through one 'lost decade' after 9/11. It took a sustained national policy effort to return to the pre-9/11 level of travel exports, which only happened last year. If we don't want to give back all of that progress, the time to act is now."
Dow added that there are actions the Trump administration can take to help prevent this decline from continuing and growing, beginning with continued support of the Brand USA tourism marketing organization. Others include protecting policies that promote and enable international inbound tourism, such as the Open Skies agreement and Visa Waiver Program, Dow said.