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TRENDSPOTTING

When travel resumes, politics is ‘absolutely’ likely to affect where people want to go and where they’ll feel welcome

Even before America’s great rupture, there was evidence that travelers preferred to avoid visiting places whose residents didn’t share their politics.

Even before America’s great rupture, there was evidence that travelers preferred to avoid visiting places whose residents didn’t share their politics.
Even before America’s great rupture, there was evidence that travelers preferred to avoid visiting places whose residents didn’t share their politics.Siberian Art/stock.adobe.com

The man at the bar in Winston-Salem, N.C., looked up from his reading to ask the newcomer where he was from.

When he had his answer, he turned and gestured toward the locals enjoying their dinners.

“There’s some people in here wouldn’t be happy to hear that you’re from Boston,” he said.

“Would they be happy to know that you’re reading the New York Times?” the visitor responded.

“Ah read it,” the man said. “But ah don’t believe it.”

The conversation over some outstanding Southern food continued civilly, but with an undercurrent of guardedness. And that was in the good old days, before the rifts in America grew even wider and yet another election divided the map into swaths of red and blue and alternate universes of truth. Before protesters occupied cities and armed insurrectionists in militia gear breached the US Capitol.

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Now, when travel resumes, politics is “absolutely” likely to affect where people want to go and where they’ll feel welcome, said Jan Jones, coordinator for hospitality and tourism management at the University of New Haven business school — and how Americans of any political stripe will be received abroad.

“In the past we could come to some common ground,” Jones said. “Now it’s become so black and white that you avoid those conversations. And it’s too bad because one of the advantages of travel is hearing other perspectives and getting to know people as people.”

This is not a vague perception. Even before America’s great rupture, there was evidence that travelers preferred to avoid visiting places whose residents didn’t share their politics.

After the high-profile 2017 special election pitting Democrat Doug Jones against Republican Roy Moore for the US Senate, “political reasons” began showing up for the first time in surveys among the explanations travelers gave for not vacationing in Alabama. Research found that Republicans had more positive perceptions of the state than Democrats and that Democrats were much less interested in planning a visit.

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Another study found that conservatives tended to vacation in states with more conservative politics and liberals in states with more liberal tendencies, measured by presidential election results and public opinion about such things as same-sex marriage, abortion, gun control and the death penalty.

The Alabama research discovered something else important: Regardless of their politics, people who had already visited the state were more likely to come back.

“That’s what experience of a destination does — it makes you realize that this is not as bad as I thought,” said Makarand Mody, an assistant professor of marketing at the Boston University School of Hospitality Administration. " ‘I came here and guess what? There are people who are just like the people in my city and state back home.’ "

Opportunities for such epiphanies may now be fewer.

Some people may be “fearful of traveling in their own country,” Mody said. “Tempers are high. Emotions are high. All of this has come to a head. That certainly has implications for how and where we all decide to spend our travel dollars.”

Two-thirds of Republicans say Democrats are unpatriotic, the Pew Research Center finds. Nearly 40 percent of Democrats say Republicans are unintelligent. And three-quarters of both say they can’t even agree on basic facts. That’s a bad start to a conversation with a stranger at a bar.

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“It is very polarized, and some travelers will be really nervous,” Jones said. “They don’t want to worry about going somewhere and getting into some kind of confrontation.”

Worse still, nearly 60 percent of both Republicans and Democrats say the other party makes them feel frustrated and around half that the other party makes them scared or angry. And who wants to be frustrated, scared, or angry on vacation?

Those emotions may be growing hard to avoid. The travel research company Skift uses the term “permanxiety” to describe now-constant fears of violence, racial tension, nationalism, xenophobia, culture wars, and health worries that increasingly confront travelers. “Everything converges in travel,” it said in a report about the problem.

One blog has already offered a list of 15 places to go for people who love former President Donald Trump (Rosemary Beach, Fla.; Idaho Falls, Idaho; Gatlinburg, Tenn.; Abilene, Kan.) and a separate one with 15 cities to go for people who hate him (Atlanta; New York City; Portland, Ore.; Burlington, Vt.).

“If you’re fixin’ to move to Trump Country, where most of your fellow Americans approve of the job our president is doing, stay away from the coasts,” a conservative website urged, recommending instead the states where Trump won 60 percent or more of the vote in 2016. (In 2020, those states were Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Kentucky, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Wyoming, while Biden won 60 percent or more of the vote in California, Hawaii, Maryland, New York, Vermont, Washington, D.C., and Massachusetts.)

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The world has also watched events unfold in the United States, and Americans who return to international travel are expected to face some awkward questions.

“Some people may be thinking, ‘What kind of an American is sitting in front of me and can I engage in a conversation? Will it be a safe conversation?’ " said Frederic Dimanche, director of the Ted Rogers School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Ryerson University in Toronto.

People from other countries that have also suffered civil unrest — namely Nigerians, Venezuelans, and Egyptians — reported feeling the least welcome globally when they traveled, a survey before the COVID-19 pandemic by the expat network Expat Insider found.

“People might get involved in some interesting debates in some pubs and restaurants,” said Nikki MacLeod, principal lecturer in the Department of Marketing, Events and Tourism at the University of Greenwich in London. “I would imagine there would still be a general sense of politeness and welcome, though maybe also a little bit of incredulity.”

The Passport Index, which tracks global mobility in real time, had already dramatically downgraded the prestige associated with a US passport because of the poor American response to Covid-19 and the number of countries that have at least temporarily restricted American travelers as a result.

Once ranked third on this index out of 199 nations and territories, the US passport has fallen to 18th.

“My friends in Canada, the first thing they say is, ‘We miss you but we don’t want the border to open,’ " Jones said. And there are now jokes about how Mexico is ready to pay for the wall.

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In many countries, including Germany, France, and the UK, the share of people who view the United States favorably hit a record low last year, Pew said.

“In the last few years when you see an American citizen out of the United States, eight out of 10 times they will receive a comment about their country,” said Armand Arton, originator of the Passport Index. “I think it will take time for the rest of the world to regain respect for the United States. As a non-US citizen, I really hope that happens.”

In fact, the consequences for travelers of America’s violent election season and its other problems may prove short-lived, said Daniel Drezner, professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and author of “All Politics is Global.”

He remembers getting similar uncomfortable questions in Europe after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but the very quick reversal of opinion in the world after Barack Obama was elected president.

“America’s reputation rebounded surprisingly quickly,” Drezner said.

Dimanche said there’s a difference between being alarmed at the direction of a country and meeting its people one on one.

“We all agree it’s really bad,” he said. “But on an individual perspective, I think we will still welcome Americans.”


Jon Marcus can be reached at jonmarcusboston@gmail.com.