In August, Presidential Campaigns Dominate Political Landscape

With Congress on its August recess, the media finds the newly nominated presidential candidates, businessman Donald Trump for the Republicans and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton the focus of most political news.

While this will certainly continue to be the dominant news into the post-Labor Day period, it has been a daily source of summer headlines, especially with the degree of controversy coming from statements from both campaigns.

To inbound tour operators, the rhythm and daily nuances of the campaigns are not critical.  The overall impact of the two campaigns in terms of both policy and perception of the United States as destination of choice are significant.

At this point in the campaign, there are three areas to review from an objective standpoint.

They are desirability of the United States as a favored destination, the ease of getting here, and finally providing the marketing to motivate our prospective visitors.  Let’s take a quick look at each using the prism of what is happening in the campaigns right now.

Regarding the maintenance of the position of the United States as the number two international destination (after France) is probably not at risk.  The United States has enjoyed three years of solid growth, up 7% in 2013, 5% in 2014, and almost 4% in 2015, according to the UN World Tourism Organization.

Nevertheless, rhetoric that raises the idea that some visitors may be less welcome could curtail this growth.  Mr. Trump, in particular, has made keeping illegal Mexicans out of the United States and deporting Muslims a big part of his campaign.  Visitors may interpret these messages more broadly. These comments in part have caused people all around the world to follow the United States presidential race much more closely than might have been the case in the past.

Mrs. Clinton has been critical of Trump’s comments and must be evaluated on her efforts to enable more travel to the United States by the steps taken by the State Department during her tenure, which helped to make the visa process and visa waiver system both more expeditious.  These steps, of course, were done without diminishing national security, as the changes were made in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security.

At this point, pulling back the welcome mat on which inbound tourism depends is only a theory.  Given the current state of the national polls and the bipartisan voices who want the welcome mat to stay in place, inbound operators may never have to deal with nervous travelers as a result of various campaign statements.

Moving on to the access question, present use of both the Visa Waiver Program and expedited visa process is likely to continue, particularly for countries already in the Visa Waiver Program and countries where extra State Department staff has been added to shorten wait times.

The challenge relating to the presidential campaign will be whether more countries will be added to Visa Waiver and whether there will be additional staff assigned for non-visa waiver countries with increasing interest in visitation to the United States.

In this instance, one can only speculate, however, statements which appear in the platforms of the two political parties and comments by the candidates can give clues to where things might be headed.

The 2016 Republican National Platform states in a section on “Confronting the Dangers” (of a dangerous world) that special scrutiny should be given to “foreign nationals seeking to enter the United States from terror sponsoring countries or from regions associated with Islamic terrorism.”  Mr. Trump is on record that France, for example, could qualify as an area associated with Islamic terrorism.  Is this just rhetoric or could a top international source of visitors actually see more stringent admission policies?  Only time will tell, but inbound operators should monitor whether there are more comments of this type.

The 2016 Democratic National Platform takes a different approach outlining specific security-based concepts for countries like Russia, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, and North Korea, while rejecting a pan-Muslim ban to enter or live in the United States or to build a wall on the border with Mexico.  Other parts of the platform outline how to strengthen trade relationships throughout the world, region by region. With the exception of travel to Cuba, other travel access issues are not addressed.  This absence of the issue suggests less likelihood of major changes, however, diligence argues to remind Congressional leaders and Secretary Clinton of how important access issues are the leading element in our balance of trade, which is inbound tourism.

Finally, the marketing of the United States is the one element in this review which is most likely to have the highest degree of bi-partisan support.  The extension of the Travel Promotion Act for another five years with a heavy bi-partisan vote in the omnibus spending bill at the close of the 2014 Congressional session gives credence to the suggestion that marketing will continue no matter which candidate is elected.  The work of Brand USA seems secure in the short term.

Again, however, diligence is in order.  Although all new appointments have just been made to the Travel and Tourism Advisory Board, which advises the Commerce Department and is appointed by the Secretary, appointments to the Brand USA board rotate, so some terms expire in different years.

As a result, the Brand USA board, which is also appointed by the Secretary of Commerce, may not reflect any modifications in policy for at least two years, even if a new President wants to use administration leaders to alter messaging or targeted markets.  Inbound operators should simply keep an eye out to protect Brand USA to ensure that the excellent way in which it is currently carrying out its mission is not challenged.

So, have fun watching the campaigns! Just be sure to listen to the subtext of campaign statements to see how it fits our mission of growing inbound tourism.