Watching Washington–Who Wants What? Who Won’t Win?

Steve Richer, DC correspondent

2018 has started out with polarization, postponement, partisanship, and policy problems.

In all of the issues of concern to inbound tour operators, the beginning of the new year has brought challenges of ever deepening divisions and confusion on key matters.
Here is the latest on what is happening in the Trump Administration and Congress in our last review before the IITA Summit.

1. Federal Government Shutdown. The federal shutdown lasted only three days–this time, as Senate Democrats accepted an “intention” by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to bring the immigration issue to the floor after the government re-opened, so the DACA issue affecting 800,000 “dreamers” can be addressed.

During the three days, this time some national parks were not closed but staffing was reduced. There are no readily available reports as to whether that impacted scheduled international tours, but other issues related to public lands might have done so. Reduced staffing cannot have helped deal with issues related to groups. Read other comments in this report to review them.

There is still no federal budget and the vote on Monday was simply the fourth CR (continuing resolution) to fund the government at existing levels and only for slightly over two weeks. Another vote is required by February 8 and it will be more of a challenge if Senator McConnell does not schedule the immigration vote or, even if he does, the House refuses to cooperate. Stay tuned on this one. Another and possibly more difficult shutdown could happen.

2. National Parks. Nothing has been resolved to date on the changes in fees, lack of consistency in policies, and inability to get booking confirmations in a timely manner. These issues are top priority for any advocacy efforts and should take priority during Destination Capitol Hill on March 21-22. A further complication on the national parks front is that ten of the twelve members of the National Park Service Advisory Board have resigned, due to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke not having called a meeting in all of 2017 and the resulting frustration of the Board in not being able to help deal with pressing issues. It is likely that matters related to the national parks will continue to be very critical to inbound tourism throughout 2018 and beyond. Nothing is likely to be addressed in Congress until there is long-term funding in place to operate the federal government. it seems unlikely that a full budget can be put in place in the next two weeks, so national park issues may sit unaddressed in at least the short term.

3. Visitation numbers. For the last two years, travel to the United States is on the decline. In 2017, the US world market share dropped to 11.9% the first time in years that it was below 12%. Travel industry leaders assign this to a strong dollar, discount airfares to other destinations, visa challenges, and, in some cases, the “Trump Slump” in conjunction with some of the current political commentary. A new effort by the “Visit U. S. Coalition,” led by the US Travel Association is working to address all of these issues. In the meantime, traditional sources of U.S. visitors are showing double digit drops in visitation, including such strong markets as Italy, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, India, Australia, and Brazil. Visitation is also down from China, South Korea, and Japan, although only in single digits. All this is happening while visitation to Canada is up in double digits.

The total decline over the two-year period was 7.4 million visitors, representing a loss of 100,000 jobs according to U.S. Travel. The United States was one of only two of the top dozen global national destinations seeing a decline since 2015. The Visit U.S. Coalition cites that international long-haul travelers spend $4400 each in the United States.

Inbound operators will want be vocal on this matter as it is the lifeblood of our work – they can help to document any changes in the market reflected in your business, and support any efforts to make the United States more welcoming. This will be an important topic of conversation at the Summit.

4. Infrastructure. The trillion dollar infrastructure proposal has been held hostage while the tax reform legislation was being considered and continues to be so while funding the government is unresolved. It is, however, probable that infrastructure funding could be the most unifying issue in the 2018 Congressional session, particularly if it gets launched early enough to avoid being caught up in 2018 electioneering.

Roads, bridges, mass transit, airports, and intermodal connections all need attention with the massive backlog which exists in the United States and especially how we are falling behind other countries, especially China, which are making much greater investments in infrastructure. Please add this topic to your list of priorities.

That’s the view from Washington DC at the end of January. If you wait a week, there might be an entirely different story to tell. Hope to see you in Portland and share it with you then