POLITICS and tourism have a close and complex relationship in the modern world.
Governments tend to favour domestic and inbound tourism in anticipation of returns which can contribute to economic development and enhance their political standing at home. The industry is viewed as a tool for transmitting positive messages overseas about countries and their rulers, as well as a vehicle for communicating ideas of national identity and for unifying multi-cultural societies.
In addition to socio-cultural advantages, success as a tourist destination also earns economic and political capital which can be spent to consolidate the power of regimes and reinforce political legitimacy.
On a more practical level, the operation of the tourism industry and pattern of tourist flows are affected by government decision and policy making across a range of areas directly and indirectly linked to tourism. Resulting internal conditions and the state of external relations influence perceptions of the appeal of countries generally and as places to visit, as well as their accessibility.
Notwithstanding these interactions, the extent to which tourists and the tourism industry should pay attention to and engage with the politics of a destination is a question for debate.
This was illustrated by the case of Myanmar under the former military government when calls for a tourism boycott met with a mixed reaction. Some believed a ban was an effective expression of opposition to an unacceptable regime and would promote political reform. Others believed that the industry should be free to do business there and tourists should be able to visit and judge the situation for themselves. Some debated that arguments about domestic political issues are irrelevant to foreign visitors and enterprises selling and marketing travel.
There was no consensus and certain operators and individuals backed the ban which was ignored by many.
Although it seems unlikely that most visitors will have an avid interest in political matters, the attitudes and behaviour of the more aware travellers could be shaped by such considerations as could commercial decisions of the tourism industry.
There are also differences relating to the purpose of travel to take into account. Business travel demand is partly determined by economic and political ties amongst nations and is non-discretionary whereas leisure travel is optional with a very wide choice of locations which may easily be substituted.
Images of a place can be critical to the selection of a vacation destination, but they are also susceptible to both burnishing and tarnishing by assorted forces, including politics.
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The Tourist Dollar
In light of these observations, it is timely to consider Donald Trump’s Presidency and its implications for America’s inbound tourism.
After the election results were announced, there was discussion in the media about whether negative views of Trump would deter tourists. Instances were cited of individuals who would be abandoning plans to visit the USA because of their aversion to his character, conduct and avowed ideology and aspects of American society which he embodies.
Muslims, who constitute a growing tourism market globally, might also have been discouraged from travelling to the USA by the Trump campaign rhetoric, and so too could Mainland Chinese for the same reason.
At the same time, industry representatives spoke about the strong and enduring attraction of America which transcends political differences. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation, it has been one of the leading destinations worldwide for a long while and was the top tourism earner in 2016 even though arrivals fell by 2.2% that year.
Personal responses to the changed political landscape in the USA will not be the only deciding factor for some prospective tourists. Costs are important and depend on the value of the dollar against other currencies. Some volatility is expected and fluctuating exchange rates could make America more or less affordable.
Ease of obtaining a visa is another issue.
Broader policies such as those related to foreign affairs and trade might lead to greater barriers to the circulation of people, products, and capital in ways which impinge on tourism. Indeed, the protectionist stance demonstrated by the early rejection of the Trans Pacific Partnership can be seen as inimical to the notions of openness and freedom of movement which are central to international tourism.
Works Both Ways?
Citizens of the USA themselves as tourists face a new world order and may feel that they will be less welcome or comfortable overseas given the extent of the antipathy towards their elected leader, his style of governing and executive decisions. Even Donald Trump himself is exposed to the repercussions of political events for tourism through his business empire and especially hotels with a brand name which has the capacity to repel as well as attract.
The President has now been in office for six months, but the administration seems to be struggling to establish its authority. There is still uncertainty about directions which will be taken and overall performance in domestic and international spheres.
Actions of the White House may aggravate any concerns of potential visitors or perhaps lessen them over time. The initial 90-day prohibition on travel to the US by citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries and review of the visa waiver programme prompted widespread consternation and legal challenges regarding the former.
A revised ban is the subject of ongoing disputes but the move together with the plan to construct a barrier along the Mexican border could be interpreted as signs of a government mistrustful of and unwelcoming to outsiders.
Analysts disagree about the effects on visitor arrivals so far and the release of annual data early next year will allow a clearer picture to emerge.
Whatever the outcomes, tourism is not immune from these political circumstances and it will be interesting to observe the situation as it unfolds during this extraordinary and unpredictable President’s tenure.
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