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The growing wreckage of American tourism

Mon, 05/08/2017 - 10:30 -- Phil Egan

As a 40-year veteran of the international travel industry, I can say one thing to our neighbours in the United States with certainty.

When the Girl Guides don’t feel comfortable crossing your border, you’ve got a problem.

The Girl Guides have a diverse membership, and were frightened by the threat posed by America’s increasingly arrogant and emboldened border guards. They feared that any attempt to travel in America might result in some of their members being left behind.

Think about that for a minute – uniformed border guards with guns strapped to their waists seeing a Girl Guide as a potential threat. The very notion would seem comical but for the fact that you know one of them might think that way.

What is happening to America?

According to Canadian Travel Press, the New York Times-like newspaper of record for the Canadian travel industry, Trump’s election has had a staggering effect on tourism. They say that inbound and domestic spending on all travel and tourism goods and services within the United States took a $3.3 billion tumble to $1.7 trillion in the last quarter of 2016. That’s the same period in which key opinion polls showed Trump overtaking Hillary Clinton in the Nov. 7 presidential election.

Once inaugurated, Trump’s attempted travel bans, while blocked by U.S. appeals courts in multiple states, nevertheless managed to send a chill of fear throughout potential travellers – especially Muslims. Despite the blocked bans, border guards, now convinced that the president is fully behind them – began aggressively interrogating prospective visitors about their religious beliefs, as if it was any of their business.

Civil rights advocates have been appalled, and rightfully so.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, Trump’s administration has instituted its policy of “extreme vetting,” which now includes new visa requirements and the inspection of computers and smart phones. The new policies have combined to make America a far less attractive destination for many travellers. The enhanced visa requirements affect millions of business travellers from countries like Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, China and South Africa. The United States Travel Association (USTA) estimates that 1.5 million travellers will be affected annually.

“Travel is a very fragile thing,” warned the USTA’s chief executive officer, Roger Dow.as he pleaded with Trump to be aware of the effect that his words and deeds are having on the industry. Fragile is no exaggeration.

 I have a recollection of just what Mr. Dow means by “fragile.”

 Back in October of 1985, four members of the Palestine Liberation Front hijacked the Italian ocean liner Achille Lauro in the Mediterranean Sea near Egypt. Many of the passengers aboard were American tourists.

The hijackers ordered the ship to sail for Syria, and then proceeded to commit an atrocity against an elderly wheelchair-bound Jewish-American tourist. They emptied their guns into Leon Klinghoffer, then ordered the ship’s barber and a waiter to throw Klinghoffer and his wheelchair overboard. The hijackers left the ship at Port Said.

The world was outraged – particularly Americans. “Maybe it’s time to stay home,” said Anita Rosenthal, a passenger aboard Achille Lauro. Putting into words the thoughts of many, she added, “there are crazies walking around and normal people can’t cope with them.”

Two days after Christmas, a machine gun and grenade attack at Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci airport killed 16 and injured 72, including an 11-year-old American girl. “Stay home,” Reagan told Americans, and they did. Even in Canada, tourism to Europe during the summer of 1986 was catastrophic for air carriers and tour operators.

It lacks the drama of machine guns and slayings, but the Trump Effect could be just as much a deterrent – this time keeping international tourists away from America.

Looking at wait times at the five largest U.S. gateways, a USTA report found that Miami (4.68 hours) and New York’s JFK (4.48 hours) had the longest peak wait times, followed by Chicago O’Hare (3.76 hours), Los Angeles (3.30 hours) and Washington Dulles (2.87 hours). The report blamed staffing shortages for the vast majority of the delays, which it said often resulted in missed connections.

With delays already creating logjams from the demand for increased security, Trump’s “America First” mantra and his dismissive treatment of potential visitors may yet prove more deadly to then travel industry than armed hijackers and bomb hurling terrorists.

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