Perception, image, and feeling welcome, matter

Perception of a destination, the hard to define sense of feeling welcome, and image, are three of the critical components that help a visitor to decide first on whether a destination is attractive enough to explore further, and then make a booking.

For this reason, many in the United States travel industry are becoming deeply concerned about the changes taking place in the way US is perceived.

Driving this has been the recently re-introduced travel ban on citizens from six countries that are predominantly Muslim; other visa restrictions; and the President’s rhetoric; which together send a signal that the country is no longer welcoming or well-disposed to those who live outside its borders.

This is of course irrational, as the country, given its size and variation, should not be seen from a single social or political perspective.

However, the travel ban, added to a daily diet of tweeted insults, unsubstantiated facts, and an ‘America First’ policy that conveys a general sense that the US has ceased to be interested in the world, is now having a demonstrably negative impact on many travellers.

Since the early part of this year, quite literally thousands of media stories have appeared around the world noting the rapid decline in US visitor arrivals and the falling interest of many countries including, for example, nations in Europe that have always had an historic affinity with US culture, but are now seeing the US less favourably as a vacation destination.

As evidenced by an analysis of forward enquiries on a number of booking sites, this is unlikely to be a short-term issue.

KAYAK, the UK-based vacation travel site, says that searches related to the US by potential British visitors have fallen by 17% since the US presidential inauguration in January. They also note that searches relating to South Florida fell by 58%; for Las Vegas by 36%; and for Los Angeles by 32%. Another report by flight analysis site Hopper, said that interest from China fell by 40% and that global searches on its site for flights to the US fell in the first two months of this year by 22%.

Interestingly, in contrast and in a clear demonstration that the issue is about perception, Hopper also reported an upward surge of 66% in interest from Russian travellers, reflecting, it seems, the US President’s apparent warmth towards their country.

If, as many in the industry in the US expect, the present negativity about the US continues, it will have serious economic implications.

According to the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), tourism has become an industry of great importance to the US, generating over 8% of the country’s GDP and supporting nearly 10% of total employment. In addition, US Federal Agencies note that overseas visitors spent US$247.1bn in 2016, and the sector employed 7.6m people and generated US$1.6 trillion in economic output in 2015.

Speaking in Las Vegas on March 14, the WTTC’s President, David Scowsill, could not have been clearer. The Trump Administration, he said, was in danger of steering the country in a direction that could have an impact similar to that experienced after 9/11, when the industry stagnated for a decade because of strict visa policies and inward-looking sentiment.

Mr Scowsill also reminded the US Administration that travel and tourism thrives by breaking down barriers, and that the industry bridges divides between cultures, fostering understanding across religious and geographic boundaries.

That this is happening under the Presidency of a hotel developer and industry expert is a paradox, although it could be argued that his brand’s rapid expansion into nations around the world will enable his corporation – now run by his two eldest sons – to offset any downturn in the US market. Others in the industry in the US, however, may not be so fortunate, as they also have to contend with a stronger dollar and a likely decline in migrant labour.

As the Caribbean now knows well, perception, and the sense that visitors from everywhere must be made to feel welcome, matters hugely when it comes to marketing a destination.

For this reason, the US’ loss may well become the Caribbean’s gain.

The industry is presently exploring the creation of a generic regional marketing campaign that it intends to present, along with other proposals, to Caribbean heads of government this summer. Whatever its actual message, it will undoubtedly contrast with the one that the US is now sending.