Under Trump, Bay Area tourism could see a decline, travel leaders say
President Trump’s America-first rhetoric may have endeared him to many voters, but it has concerned those in the travel industry who fear that increased restrictions on international travel and the lack of a welcome message from the White House may have a dampening effect on tourism in the Bay Area and beyond.
In fact, search traffic for booking travel to the U.S. from other countries has already taken a hit, according to Hopper, which analyzes billions of flights to help people find the best deals and times to buy.
“With the travel ban, we saw the day it was implemented that there was something like a 17 percent decline in people who were searching to the U.S.,” said Patrick Surry, chief data scientist for Hopper. “Each time, those travel restrictions were a dominant part of the news cycle.”
Hopper’s data shows that 103 of 122 countries showed a drop. China, which is one of the biggest sources of Bay Area tourism, is among the largest decreases, with searches to the U.S. down more than 40 percent. San Francisco International Airport is the most impacted airport, with flight searches from international origins to SFO dropping 45.6 percent following the travel ban announcement.
A happy reunion in the international arrival area at San Francisco International Airport in San Francisco, Calif., photographed on Tuesday, April 4, 2017. Have the White House’s policies on travel impacted tourism in cities like San Francisco and the Bay Area? Some international travelers may rethink future trips to the United States. (Dan Honda/Bay Area News Group)
According to Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, tourism can take a hit “any time you make it difficult for people to travel in any way.”
Since taking office, President Trump has made repeated policy announcements that could impact the country’s $250 billion travel industry. The executive orders he issued on banning travel from majority Muslim nations were not only criticized for possible legal and ethical transgressions but created a global public relations nightmare — particularly after the first one led to the abrupt detention of families traveling to the U.S. before it was halted by the courts.
More recently, the White House implemented a ban on large electronic devices in airline cabins for people flying from airports in certain countries. Then, reports came out that the administration wants to implement stricter vetting procedures for visa applicants and that foreigners who want to visit the U.S. for even short trips may have to disclose information like social media passwords, financial records and other information.
“We’re beginning to sense a perception challenge, and perception drives reality,” Dow said. “It will have some negative implications.”
Several people who were arriving from other countries at San Francisco International Airport recently said the Trump administration’s policies could impact how they travel to the U.S. in the near future.
Daniela Lanceta and Luis Javier Ortelga are citizens of Mexico who were recently traveling in China and were stopping in San Francisco for a few days before returning home. Lanceta said when Trump became president and started proclaiming his policies on travel and immigration, she made a promise not to visit the U.S. while he was president. “But I had already booked this trip,” she said of their six-day stay. “After this, we will not come to the states for the next four years.”
It’s not just that people are afraid to come here for fear of being detained, but rather the principle of supporting the U.S. with their money when such policies exist, Ortelga said.
“I understand how Americans can be upset (over security and economic threats of other countries),” he said. “But there are other ways to handle it.”
Dhitesh Shah, who is visiting his sister in the Bay Area from his home in India, said he noticed a difference in procedures from when he last visited in 2006. The questioning by immigration and customs officials was more intense this time. He said Trump’s stance “sends the wrong signal,” to visitors.
Trump’s policies and attitude are not the only things impacting travel to the U.S. A stronger dollar compared to other currencies makes traveling here more expensive than in recent years, and some economies have struggled.
“We think the administration has to come forward with a strong message of ‘We want you to come here, legitimate travelers,’ ” Dow said. “That hasn’t been there.”
If tourism does decrease, it would hurt. The tourism industry generates $2.1 trillion in economic output and supports 15.1 million jobs, according to the U.S. Travel Association, and California plays a big role in that.
Visitors in 2016 spent a projected $125.9 billion, according to Visit California, the tourism and marketing arm for the state. About $25.5 billion of that was from international visitors, and the industry as a whole generates approximately 1.09 million jobs in the state.
The Bay Area’s own tourism industry has grown in the years since the economic recession, driven by an uptick in business and leisure travel. According to the latest data available from Visit California, visitors to Bay Area counties are projected to have spent about $34.3 billion in 2016.
Some tourism leaders in the Bay Area are issuing warnings about how federal policies could hit the tourism economy.
“Our country’s reputation has taken some blows due to the recent executive order on immigration,” said Joe D’Alessandro, president and CEO of San Francisco Travel, in the organization’s 2017 forecast report. “Though we don’t know what the administration’s next steps will be or what impact it will have, this has the potential to dissuade people who are ‘on the fence’ about visiting the U.S. This is why international volume is forecasted to grow at only 0.3 percent in 2017.”
Mark Everton, CEO of Visit Oakland, said that while Oakland has been fortunate in seeing new direct flights to the airport and an increase in hotel stays and money spent by travelers, it could see a hit to its tourism dollars if visitors from its feeder markets like Canada, Mexico and Europe decide not to come to the U.S.
“Uncertainty harms tourism,” Everton said, adding that many people in other countries are confused about what the U.S. policies are now on travel and how they might change in the near future.
He said communities like Oakland may need to work harder to market themselves if they want to generate tourism dollars.
“For a government interested in generating revenue, the easiest way to do that is to have people overseas spend money (here),” Everton said. “It’s a pure import, and it’s 100 percent good for us to have foreign travelers come to the U.S.”
Dow, of the U.S. Travel Association, echoed that and said the travel industry is trying to communicate with the government the importance of welcoming tourists.
“We need to tell (them) our story,” Dow said. “We’re the darling of the U.S. economy, and don’t mess it up.”