COMMENTARY | CHRISTOPHER MUTHER
Lesley Becker/Globe Staff; AP
The US has enjoyed the enviable title of being the second-most visited country in the world for years. France takes top honors because people enjoy croissants with a healthy side of l’amour and a warbling Édith Piaf soundtrack. There’s no shame in being runner-up to France.
But in 2017 the US slipped to the third most visited country in the world. To make matters worse, we lost our second place standing to a country that doesn’t even want tourists. Spain is now the second most-visited country in the world. This is a place where residents took to the streets of Barcelona to protest over-tourism, and there’s a Catalan political crisis underway.
The new rankings haven’t been officially released, but the UN’s World Tourism Organization is expected to make the announcement this spring. Take a minute to let this sink in — a country the size of Texas that has no Disney theme parks or Eiffel Tower had more visitors in 2017 than the entire United States.
“Jiminy Christmas!” you’re now thinking to yourself. “What’s going on here?”
You don’t need Nancy Drew, Columbo, or Miss Marple to get to the bottom of this non-mystery. The problem is that we have quite possibly the worst spokesman for US tourism leading our country. Under President Trump, tourism dropped more than 4 percent during the first six months of 2017. Tourism spending dropped by 3.3 percent. That decline resulted in a $4.6 billion hit to the economy and the loss of tens of thousands of jobs, according to the Commerce Department. That’s just the first half of 2017. Who knows what kind of wonders await when figures are released for the second half of the year.
Trump hasn’t Tweeted those numbers yet.
He’s such a contentious figure that the research company Morning Consult reported last month that the Trump Hotel chain is the most polarizing brand in America. More polarizing than Fox News, CNN, Koch Industries, the New York Times, the Breitbart News Network, or Chick-fil-A. I suspect this explains why international jet-setters are picking paella over Pizza Hut. It probably explains why his hotels have seen a decline in the number of lodgers.
None of this is a surprise to me because I spent the better half of last year reporting that tourism numbers were dropping and Trump’s hotels were losing business. But I can’t keep writing the story as if it’s new or surprising, so I kindly ask for your patience while I rant. Join in if you so desire.
Here’s another prediction: Tourism numbers will drop during the first six months of 2018. I don’t have a crystal disco ball, but I do know that the tactless president referred to several nations as “shithole countries.” He later clarified that he said “shithouse countries,” because I guess that’s less offensive. Either way, this endearing pet name for a handful of African countries and Haiti will not be translated by citizens of the world as “Welcome to the US! Enjoy your stay!” Not even by prized Norwegians.
Just to ensure those tourism numbers stay down in 2018, Trump is proposing a grand military parade in the tradition of North Korea, because when people think of North Korea, they think of relaxing vacations. Who doesn’t love to see a boulevard full of killing machines while traveling?
It could be argued that the strong dollar is deterring would-be visitors, but the Euro isn’t exactly on life support. The trajectory of tourism decline closely mirrors Trump’s hastily enacted travel ban last year, which targeted nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries. The ban was not intended to keep out residents of other countries, but it did. People began changing vacation plans.
Think of it this way: A bully at school tells your Mexican classmates that they’re rapists. He refers to anyone who claims Native American ancestry as “Pocahontas,” and absolutely refuses to interact with any Muslim classmates. At the end of the school day, no child wants to go to the bully’s house for a playdate.
In researching stories about inbound tourism to the United States, I was overwhelmed with numbers and percentages. None of them good. I’m not going to recite them all again because I don’t want to leave you frantically reaching for a bottle of Klonopin from your medicine cabinet. While traveling for work I was constantly peppered with questions about the presidency of a “stable genius.” Those weren’t very good either. I tried my best to tell those I encountered that most people in the United States are pretty decent and it’s still a great place to visit.
The travel ban stayed in the headlines last year while it went between the White House and the courts like a shuttlecock in an unending game of badminton. Every time it popped up again, it was as if another Jenga block was pulled from our wobbly tourism tower. It’s not difficult to picture the tower crashing down with a bit more posturing and a few more “America First” red hats.
Common sense would dictate that the best way to counter the trend would be to gas up the marketing engine and show what a wonderful place this country can be to visit. Instead, part of the Trump administration’s 2018 budget plan involved pulling government funding out of an organization that has done an effective job of selling the United States as a tourist destination.
The organization, called Brand USA, is funded by a combination of private and public money. Oxford Economics estimated that Brand USA’s marketing has helped bring more than 3 million international visitors to the country during the past three years. That sounds like a more effective strategy for bringing in visitors than tripling entry fees at National Parks.
But I’m not here to simply deride the Trump administration’s poor handling of inbound US tourism. Think of this as a clarion call. I’m a man of ideas! If the US is going to compete with France, Spain, and China, which is the fourth most visited country, we need to make some changes.
A new tourism slogan might be helpful. Perhaps something along the lines of “Please stop reading Twitter. We promise it’s not that bad!” Inbound tourism rates to Canada are soaring, so how about “Welcome to the US. We’re like Canada, but warmer!” I’m partial to “I can’t believe it’s not scary” or “The US, now with 20 percent more Shake Shacks.” It’s important to play up our strengths.
With our numbers dropping, we need to get creative. Every country in the world, with the exception of Myanmar, Liberia, and the United States, uses the metric system. How about we finally convert? Tourists love US pop culture. Perhaps we could offer celebrity tour guides? I hear Brendan Fraser is looking for work.
Or, we dispense with silly ideas (although I’ll stand by the metric system) and get to the business of stopping the tourism hemorrhage by raising our voices and drowning out the steady stream of xenophobic messages coming out of Washington and Twitter.
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