Historically, New York City has acted as America’s proverbial canary in the coal mine.
The city is forever finding itself on the forefront of cultural and economic trends that begin on the shores of the Hudson before winding their way into the nation’s heartland.
So, it should come as no surprise that the repercussions of the current political climate are already being felt on the city’s streets and in the pocketbooks of those who live and work here.
Case in point, tourism.
After the recession of 2008, tourism was one of the few industries in New York that not only weathered the storm, but continued to grow. The number of visitors increased annually, giving rise to new hotels and restaurants, generating record breaking profits on Broadway, and helping to create a crop of new tour companies – including one owned by yours truly!
A year ago, the city was projecting an increase of approximately 400,00 international visitors between 2016 and 2017. But today, adverse reactions to proposed “travel bans” and concerns about “extreme vetting” are scaring off would-be-visitors and international tourism numbers have started to drop.
In the face of what is being referred to in industry circles as “The Trump Slump”, New York City now expects to lose 300,000 foreign tourists for this calendar year.
And, as is often the case, what happens in New York does not stay in New York.
In an article published in March by The L.A. Times, Pennsylvania based international economics consulting firm Tourism Economics projected a loss of 6.3 million international visitors to the country as a whole by the end of 2017. In 2016, the United States welcomed approximately 77 million international visitors; that decrease translates to an 8.2% drop or, in dollars, the loss of approximately 10.8 billion in tourism revenue. Market Watch released an equally grim report in April indicating that “Online searches by prospective travelers to the U.S. have fallen by 6% year-over-year in the first quarter of 2017” while international flight revenue “dropped by an additional 26% the week that travel restrictions were announced in February.”
The growing trend of forgoing travel to the U.S. in favor of other destinations is by no means limited to tourists based in countries which have been singled out by the proposed travel ban. On the contrary, the declining numbers are being generated largely by America’s staunchest allies, who find themselves morally opposed to the administration’s policies and are choosing to express their disapproval by avoiding American cities.
In January, an Op-Ed in The Toronto Star encouraged Canadians to put off travelling to America while the current administration remains in office. Then, in April, The Independent reported that almost a third of Britons who had previously planned to travel to the United States have postponed or cancelled. Considering the fact that the U.K. alone injects roughly $5 billion dollars into the national economy annually through tourism and that international tourists tend to stay longer and spend more than their domestic counterparts, these statistics are cause for concern.
But, as sobering as the numbers are, they only represent the short term fall out.
In the long term, one must consider the fact that tourism and travel related industries are a top 10 employer in 49 out of 50 states and the District of Columbia, supporting roughly 15.1 million American jobs. It is possible that, should the trend continue, job losses will begin to be suffered, especially in smaller markets.
Fortunately, the American tourism industry is working to contain the damage. And, as always, New York City is leading the pack and rolling out the welcome wagon in grand fashion.
NYC & Company, the official marketing, tourism and partnership organization for the City of New York, (which, in the interest of full disclosure, I am a former employee of) launched a multimillion dollar, multilingual ad campaign in April targeting key international markets including the United Kingdom, Mexico and Germany.
The “ALL ARE WELCOME”, campaign is designed to combat the antagonism and aggression of the “America First” narrative and provide a counterbalance to the negativity of the current political landscape. The campaign includes brightly colored advertisements depicting city landmarks, such as the Statue of Liberty, alongside the tag line: “New York City: Welcoming the World.” They’ve even created a fabulous promo video to really drive the point home.
That same month, shortly before hosting a press conference in Toronto and meeting with tourism companies there, NYC & Company CEO Fred Dixon told The Huffington Post that his goal was “to remind everyone that New York City is welcoming and that we are a diverse and safe city, a sanctuary city like Toronto, and we value the same things.” New York City also renewed its city-to-city partnership with Mexico City, and arrangement begun in 2013 and designed to increase tourism between the two metropolises.
So, is any of this working?
The short answer is: It’s too soon to tell.
While it’s difficult to ascertain the degree to which Mr. Dixon and his team can mitigate the damage done, the summer months – a reliably busy time for New York tourism – may prove an early indicator of how far we have to go.
The most important thing to remember is that each and every one of us have the ability and, in fact, the duty to affect positive change both in the current tourism market and in the world’s perception of who we are and what we stand for.
And how are we to do this?
It is incumbent on those of us in the travel industry to remind the world that our belief in inclusiveness, in the rights of the common man, in the dignity and worth of individuals regardless of their place of birth, chosen faith or skin color remains intrinsic to our understanding of what it means to be a New Yorker. That this city would not, could not, be what it is without every immigrant who ever traveled here in pursuit of his or her dreams, without every civic minded community organizer who fought for better housing, fair wages, safer schools and an improved quality of life for their neighbors, without every artist who pushed the limits of what was considered acceptable or every architect who dared to scrape the sky.
Too often, visitors are shepherded to the same well trafficked locations. They are offered history in sanitized, over simplified sound bites. We worry that people on vacation will not appreciate being removed from their comfort zones. We are concerned we may offend conservative sensibilities. We say that as if it’s a bad thing. It isn’t. It’s how vacationers become travelers, how we reclaim control of the narrative, it’s how minds are changed.
This is New York.
This is where the Wall Street was occupied.
This is where the Stonewall Riots erupted in the streets.
This where Malcom X formed the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood.
This where Planned Parenthood was born.
This is where the Labor Movement rose from the ashes of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.
This is where Lazarus bestowed the name “Mother of Exiles” upon the lady who stands in our harbor welcoming the tired, poor, huddled masses of the world.
This is where the very first President of these United States took the Oath of Office.
These events in our history, these defining moments in the character of our city, ought to be worn like the badges of honor they are and put proudly at the forefront of how we present ourselves to the world.
And what about the rest of the population? What about the average American who doesn’t work in the industry but cares deeply about how the world sees us and what he or she can do to effect international perceptions?
In a word: Travel.
Mark Twain said “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of earth all one’s lifetime.”
I’m here to tell you, he was right.
The first and best thing that every single one of us can do is get out into the world and travel.
At this moment in our history, it verges upon a patriotic duty.
Visit a foreign country. If you’re from a “Blue State” visit a “Red” one, or vice versa. Try to go without preconceived notions of who you will meet or what you will find. Keep an open mind. Have a polite conversation with a local. Dare to be uncomfortable.
Don’t take a vacation – have an adventure!
Is all of this just a touch kumbaya?
But we’ve got to start somewhere.