New figures released by the US Department of Commerce show a drop in international visitors to the US by close to 700,000 in the first quarter of 2017 compared to the figure for the previous year. European countries were down 10.1 percent, and Mexico was off 7.1 percent in the quarter. The largest drops were from the Middle East and Africa, though they represent a much smaller percentage of overall travel to the US, nytimes.com reported.
Overall, 697,791 fewer foreigners visited the US in the first three months of the year — down 4.2 percent to 15.8 million. According to Tourism Economics, a branch of Oxford Economics based in Wayne, Pa., that analyzes travel data, the drop represents a loss of nearly $2.7 billion in spending.
As points of comparison, the first quarter of 2013, after the reelection of Obama, international tourism was up 6.4 percent, and the first quarter of 2009, after President Obama’s first election (and during global recession that began at the end of 2008), it was down 14.3 percent.
The question of whether the results prove a ripple effect from President Trump’s proposed travel ban on visitors from six majority-Muslim countries, an expanded wall along the Mexican border and anti-immigrant statements remains unanswered. However the data tracks with a decline in US favorability abroad: In June, the Pew Research Center found that 49 percent of those surveyed in 37 nations had a positive view of the US, versus 64 percent at the end of President Obama’s term in office.
Last week, Pew reported that nearly two-thirds of Mexicans held a negative opinion of the US, more than double the figure of two years ago, which stood at 29 percent.
“It’s not a reach to say the rhetoric and policies of this administration are affecting sentiment around the world, creating antipathy toward the US and affecting travel behavior,” said Adam Sacks, the president of Tourism Economics.
In response to a Facebook post by The New York Times, European readers overwhelmingly cited the Trump administration and its policies as reasons for avoiding or canceling trips to the US.
This has been a strong year for the US dollar, which makes travel more expensive for other currencies — though exceptions make that an unsatisfying explanation for the tourism drop. The Canadian dollar, for example, is weaker than it has been in previous years (despite a summer surge), yet Canadian tourism to the US was up 14.8 percent January through April.
Within Europe, the tourism declines were largest in Switzerland at nearly 28 percent, Belgium at 20 percent and Britain at 15.5 percent. Britain accounts for the largest share by country of European arrivals in the United States, with 4½ million tourists last year, making its slowdown significant. (Asian tourism was about the same as last year — up .6 percent — mainly due to a surge of South Korean travelers, up over 15 percent in the first quarter.)
A report released in April by the World Economic Forum showed the United States falling two spots in its rankings of the top 10 most popular countries for tourism in the world. The US fell to number six, passed by both Japan and Britain.
The economic picture is less straightforward, however. The Commerce Department’s National Travel and Tourism Office reported a 2.5 percent increase in spending by international visitors to $83.4 billion in the first four months of the year compared to the same period in 2016.
Some of the decline in first quarter results may be because of the shift of the Easter and Passover holidays, when travel usually spikes. Those occurred in March of 2016 and April this year, possibly skewing first quarter figures. April figures ease the overall decline of foreign visitors to the US from 4.2 percent to 1.2 percent. A boost in arrivals from Canada — up 7.8 percent through April after two years of declines — helped offset slowdowns from Mexico at 4.9 percent for the first four months of the year and Britain at 6.9 percent for the same period.
Factoring in the April figures brings the loss to the US economy to $1.7 billion, according to Tourism Economics.
Some tour operators have already felt the freeze. Intrepid Travel reported a 24 percent decrease in bookings to the US this year to date compared to the same period last year, while trips to Canada are up 40 percent.
Security concerns may be another factor. Through government travel advisories, countries including New Zealand and Britain have warned their citizens that travel within the US represents some risk based on the threat of terrorist attacks.