THE BUSINESS OF TOURISM - Perception, image and feeling welcome matter
David Jessop, Hospitality Jamaica Writer
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 (US) travel industry are becoming deeply concerned about the changes taking place in the way the US is perceived.
Driving this has been the recently reintroduced travel ban on citizens from six countries that are predominantly Moslem, 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 in many countries, including, for example, nations in Europe that have always had a 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 per cent since the US presidential inauguration in January. They also note that searches relating to South Florida fell by 58 per cent, for Las Vegas by 36 per cent, and for Los Angeles by 32 per cent. Another report by the flight analysis site, Hopper, said that interest from China fell by 40 per cent and that global searches on its site for flights to the US fell in the first two months of this year by 22 per cent.
Interestingly, in contrast and in a clear demonstration that the issue is about perception, Hopper also reported an upward surge of 66 per cent in interest by 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 of great importance to the US, with the industry generating over eight per cent of the country's GDP and supporting nearly 10 per cent of total employment. In addition, US federal agencies note that overseas visitors spent US$247.1b in 2016, and the sector employed 7.6 million 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 like 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, and fosters 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 oldest sons - to offset any downturn in the US market.
Others in the industry in the US, however, may not be so fortunate having also 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, matter hugely when it comes to marketing a destination.
For this reason, the US's loss may well become the Caribbean's gain.