A picture-perfect family of four is visiting a Washington D.C. museum clad in matching red “Make America Great Again” caps – a symbol of allegiance to U.S. president Donald Trump.
A travel industry executive sheepishly whispers, “I think my mother voted Trump.” He’s afraid to ask.
A man from man from Massachusetts, a Democratic bastion, reveals, “There are lots of couples I know where the guy voted for Trump and the woman for Hillary and they’re not sleeping in the same bed any more. It’s a common thing.”
The U.S. is in turmoil, clearly a divided nation – perhaps more so than at any time since the Vietnam War and Civil Rights era. A succession of presidents, both red and blue, have all split opinions along partisan lines, and otherwise. Events too, like the Gulf War. But even the much-ridiculed George W. Bush didn’t seem to spark quite the same intense emotion as the current contentious president, Donald J. Trump.
And while there’s no shortage of opportunity for observers to follow along in horror, humour or agreement, the U.S. Travel Association (USTA) travel trade show, IPW (International Pow Wow), has always proved a particularly interesting bellwether for the state of the States. Held in Washington D.C. in early June, this year’s 49th annual event didn’t disappoint. Indeed, more than 6,300 attendees from over 70 nations were on hand, with most of them wondering what in the name of Uncle Sam is going on down there?
From his proposed travel ban – “I am calling it what it is… a TRAVEL BAN!” Trump just happened to tweet on Day 1 of the conference -- to a Mexican wall, lap top ban on airplanes, legislation to cut tourism funding and shutter Brand USA, the prickly POTUS was never far from mind, or the lips, of both delegates and hosts.
To its credit, the US tourism industry, which, it must be observed, depends in part on international travellers for its livelihood, addressed the elephant in the room head on. “You might be saying, ‘I wonder if the U.S. even welcomes us any more?’” USTA president and CEO Roger Dow said at the outset, adding, “This seems like a new and troubling time…”
But he reminded that this has happened before. “Right after 9/11 was a scary time in this country that brought policy reaction that many people said was over-reaction… that our policies are sending the wrong message, that we wanted international visitors to stay away… It took us a long time to get back from Sept. 11. and I can tell you we’re not going to let that happen again…”
To that end, he reassured: “We want you to visit here… we all welcome you.”
With the conference themed “One Big Welcome,” state after state, city after city, and supplier after supplier, stepped up to reinforce Dow’s promise.
“Oregon is a welcoming and inclusive place,” a state tourism exec exclaimed in a video montage of like-minded colleagues, most of whom seemed positively defiant towards the perceived hostile and isolationist nature of the federal government. “San Francisco doesn’t just welcome our differences, we encourage them. It’s not just our philosophy, it’s our promise,” said another.
The message was delivered in person too.
“New Orleans is one of the most welcoming cities… Diversity is what we thrive on. We would not be the city we are without our diverse population and diverse visitors,” said city VP of tourism, Kim Priez.
Meanwhile, Visit California president and CEO Caroline Betata said her state would “double down on rolling out the red carpet for visitors,” adding that despite the new regime in Washington, “Nothing has changed. We’re humbled to have visitors from all over the world.”
At a California party, featuring a mini concert by Los Angeles rock band the X Ambassadors, lead singer Sam Harris took the message a step further, calling for tolerance for people of all nationalities, ethnicities, religions and sexual preferences.
Miami tourism president and CEO Bill Talbert – as different from Harris in terms of look, age and professional calling as could be – agreed. “We support diversification. It’s not a zero-sum game. It’s good for our industry,” he said.
As almost every tourism official at hand seemed to stare down the administration, those entrusted with treating with the government were careful to pledge support for at least part of Trump’s agenda.
“Safety and security are top of mind at the moment [in the face of a series on international terrorism attacks],” observed Brand USA president and CEO Chris Thompson, who noted that a safe environment for US citizens is also a safe one for visitors.
That was the message echoed by US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, who addressed delegates in a luncheon speech on the second day of the conference. “We must protect people from terrorists. Without that security, there will be little travel. But’s let’s be clear, America is open for business and open to the millions of visitors who wish us well!”
However, Ross’s presence and address, though perhaps a significant signal from the administration to a global audience of tourism VIPs, who are in some part responsible for generating those millions of visitors, barely registered, prompting only the odd, awkward smattering of applause, unlike a personal video address by Barack Obama during in his tenure.
But as Roger Dow later observed, even Obama did not appreciate the importance of the tourism industry when he entered the Oval Office.
“There has been plenty of times in the past when the occupant of the White House has needed understanding to really pay attention to travel issues,” he recounted. “US travel was founded 75 years ago after World War II because the official position of the U.S. government was: don’t travel, because they wanted to keep resources for the war effort at that time. So, people said, ‘We’ve gotta get back travelling again.’”
As for the latest bump in the road for U.S. tourism, Dow says the USTA will meet with Trump to reinforce the message that tourism is a massive contributor to the US economy and a generator of millions of jobs.
“Security is important and we want to work with the administration on how they can get that message correct… We’ve been to the White House… their level of concern about national security is genuine, it’s heartfelt and it’s sincere… face to face they also talk about the value of international travellers, their importance to the economy [and] jobs; but we have to get them speaking that [to the public]… Our message is simple: the administration must be loud and clear that America is closed to terror, but open for business!”
But, at the same time, Dow acknowledged to a British delegate that the USTA is “concerned” about the rhetoric of Trump and his administration. “This president has a tendency to talk real fast,” he said, referring to the insensitive Trump tweet criticizing the mayor of London mere hours after a horrific terrorist attack. “His tweet, he was upset about the people who were killed… and he didn’t send the message, I think, correctly...”
It’s the USTA’s job to get the whole administration to start talking the language of tourism correctly, he says. “Those people aren’t dumb, they’re playing to a base that they have, but the bottom line is they understand business, and we will get through this… [Trump] is a hotelier. He should understand this. He does understand this… He’s a businessman, he’s smart, we will help bring him around!”
In the end, the savvy long-time head of U.S. Travel says: “This is a long game, we’ve been through this before… We look at the big picture and we have every reason to believe travel will prevail.”
THIS AND THAT
- Who says Canadians are cheap? VisitBritain reports that we’re spending more than ever in the U.K., posting a new record in 2016 - $1.1 billion. That’s in part because 17 per cent more Canucks also visited last year, representing the best year since 2006, before the global downturn.
- A recent column on the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ classic Sgt. Pepper album prompted Ginette Goulston-Lincoln, travel trade consultant of The Beatles Story in Liverpool, to point out that the museum has three special exhibits about the album this summer…
- An item in last week’s column omitted some vital information (like the names of the hotels), so in the “let’s-try-this-again category,” Barbados hotels Port Ferdinand and Saint Peter’s Bay have engaged Newmarket, Ont.-based Canlink Travel as representatives in the Canadian market. The two luxury properties are located on the calm west coast of the island and can be booked through Sunquest, Air Canada Vacations and Classic Vacations. Sorry, Brent. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
- Sandals fourth St. Lucia resort will break ground this fall, though an opening date hasn’t yet been announced. Sandals LaSource St. Lucia promises to be spectacular, with highlights including a rooftop pool, continuous winding river, 9,000-sq.-ft. curved glass-fronted infinity edge pool and entertainment centre with four-lane bowling alley.
- Collette’s small group exploration tours, which take clients off the beaten track and feature unique experiences such as snorkeling in the Galapagos or visiting an elephant orphanage in Sri Lanka, are on sale for $300 p.p. off when booked by Aug. 8. Some limitations apply. Use offer code EXPLORE17.
- Sunwing reports that it will be offering cruise packages with Norwegian Cruise Line this coming winter, thanks to a new flight connection from Montreal to Fort Lauderdale that will depart weekly on Sundays beginning Dec. 10 and continue through April 15, 2018. Cruises explore the Western Caribbean with destinations such as Roatan, Honduras, and Harvest Caye, Belize, and Mexico.
Words of the Week
“And now I’ll take questions. Maybe there are no questions. (Laughs). Everything is going so well these days.”
-- Roger Dow, president & CEO of the U.S. Travel Association to the media at the recent IPW trade show in Washington, D.C.
The U.S. Capitol Building, Washington, DC.