What is the Trump administration’s effect on inbound tourism to the United States? Is the ongoing trade war between China and the U.S. affecting Chinese tourism flows? Is there a so-called Trump slump in tourism?
These are all good questions—reasonable questions really—for the tourism and hospitality industry to both be asking themselves and their government. Arguably, they’re multi-billion-dollar questions that should guide both investments, hedging, and strategy.
Unfortunately, these are questions that the National Tourism & Trade Office (NTTO) no longer answers, as of March this year.
Usually, the NTTO would publish critical data related to tourism in the United States. Data points offered included visits per source market and month, spending, and even forecasts to guide industry stakeholders. In a time of trade wars, U.S. travel bans and PR issues on the international stage, such data is particularly vital.
In a press release, the NTTO announced that it’s “temporarily suspending” the release of such data on account of “underlying technical issues with a significant number of records received from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).”
The NTTO hasn’t only “temporarily suspended” the release of new data; stakeholders who want to read up on the next best thing—older data—are also left in the dark as the NTTO has pulled all access to any useful tourism data for both 2017 and 2016. In other words, U.S. tourism performance for almost three full years is essentially gone, and stakeholders are left in the lurch. While the NTTO may argue that only figures from 2015 and before are reliable, it goes without saying that these may not be particularly helpful in navigating today’s challenges.
It’s essentially impossible to effectively assess the performance of the Chinese tourism market in the United States after the trade war started heating up. Similarly, the effects on Muslim travel after the proposed Muslim travel ban remains more or less unknown.
The good news is that U.S. Department of Commerce suggests that the supposedly erroneous statistics that were pulled may significantly underestimate U.S. tourism performance. Put simply: the so-called Trump slump in U.S. tourism may be a statistical error.
Nonetheless, outside analysts have argued that there is indeed a major, ongoing drop in tourism to the United States.
ForwardKeys, an independent data company, presented data earlier this month that suggests that U.S. tourism is indeed hampered by the ongoing trade war with China. According to the company, Chinese visits to the United States are down by 8.4 percent since the tariffs first took effect in March. Looking forward, the company projects a 9.4 percent year-over-year drop in the period from August to September. Group travelers were the hardest hit, forecast to drop 34.4 percent year-over-year for the same period. All this despite overall rapid Chinese tourism market growth, as well as growth in Chinese travel to Canada.
So whether the United States’ tourism performance is cause for celebration or a reason for concern really depends on what narrative you buy into. Usually you’d be able to settle the score with reliable official data, but in this case, it’s more like a case of Schrödinger’s cat. Until we know more, tourism under Trump is both a success and a failure. And that’s a failure.