Hours after President Trump fired off a series of tweets defending his travel ban on Monday, hundreds of representatives from the U.S. tourism industry convened in Washington for an annual gathering that this year was an exercise in damage control.
“I know many of you are saying, ‘I wonder if the U.S. even welcomes me anymore,’ ” Roger Dow, chief executive of the U.S. Travel Association, said to more than 1,300 foreign travel writers, tour operators and wholesale travel providers. “And on behalf of the U.S. travel industry, I’d like to give you an answer: We want you here. We want you to send your friends here. We all welcome you.”
“One big welcome,” Dow reiterated multiple times Monday, and again Tuesday, at IPW, a yearly trade show meant to market American attractions, cities and states to international travelers.
Ever since Trump announced his first executive order in January restricting travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries, the travel industry has been on high alert. Travel from a number of countries, including Mexico and Britain, is down, and hotel companies, airlines and others have expressed concern that restrictive policies could amount to billions of dollars in lost business.
The hospitality industry, once optimistic that a hotelier would be leading the country, has in recent months slipped into quiet desperation at the prospect of dwindling revenue.
“We think it’s about two-and-a-half million jobs in the U.S. [that are] directly dependent on foreign tourists arriving to the United States,” Arne Sorenson, the chief executive of Marriott International, said on CNBC last week.
“All of us need to help correct the notion that the United States of America does not want international travelers,” Geoff Ballotti, chief executive of Wyndham Hotel Group, said at the trade show. “Advocacy has never mattered more.”
But now came the difficult part: Encouraging foreigners to visit the United States at a time when the country’s president seemed to be doing the opposite. (“The Justice Dept. should have stayed with the original Travel Ban, not the watered down, politically correct version they submitted to [the Supreme Court],” Trump tweeted Monday. Minutes later, he added: “In any event we are EXTREME VETTING people coming into the U.S. in order to help keep our country safe.”)
“None of us doubts the feelings of Americans in general,” said Jen Savedra, editor of Travel Industry Today, an online publication based in Toronto. “But when the president is tweeting about how people aren’t welcome in the country, a lot of people are saying, ‘Why? We’ll go to Mexico or the Dominican Republic instead.’ ”
At least one friend, she said, had sold her winter home in the United States after Trump took office, and Savedra said she had contemplated doing the same with her home in Gulfport, Fla. “We’ll give it another year and see how it goes,” she said.
On the convention center floor, hundreds of booths touted the merits of U.S. travel. Orlando — where Kayak.com says online searches for flights from Britain have fallen 58 percent since Trump’s election — promised “never-ending laughs.” South Dakota, one of a handful of states marketing itself as “the real America,” played up Mount Rushmore. And at the Virginia booth, representatives handed out fresh oysters and glasses of sparkling wine. A sign urged attendees to tweet photos with the hashtag #VAwelcomesall. (The Trump Hotels table, meanwhile, offered chocolate shaped like bars of gold and stamped “Trump.”)
“We just don’t want the view to be, ‘Don’t come,’ ” said Demea Metcalf, who was representing Irvine, Calif. “Right now, people are wavering. They’re second-guessing their plans.”
International travel to Southern California had grown 20 percent last year, she added. “Let’s not put the brakes on that just yet.”
Earlier in the day, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross had come to the conference to tout the administration’s “dual mission of national security and tourism promotion.”
“This administration recognizes the power of travel as a bridge to bring people together,” he said. “If there’s one message for you to take away today, it is this: We are taking every measure to ensure that the U.S. remains competitive for providing a quality visitor experience while also ensuring the safety of both our citizens and our guests.”
The crowd applauded, but the next day, many said they still had their doubts.
“Have you accepted the fact that you’ve got at least three and a half years of problems with the Trump administration?” a man asked Dow during a news conference.
“I keep saying to our people, this is a long game,” Dow said, adding that Trump had been in office for fewer than 150 days of a roughly 1,460-day term.
“This president, he has a tendency to talk real fast,” he continued. “We’re concerned about the rhetoric. But we’re going to work with the president. He’s a hotelier. He’s a businessman. He’s smart, and we are going to help bring him around.”
Dow toed a delicate line between reassurance — international travel to the United States grew 4 percent in April, he said, at about the same rate as the year before — and alarm. “We’re very concerned that the America brand is troubled,” he said, adding that he was more worried about incremental hits over many months than one big blow.
He also pointed to the commerce secretary’s comments as a sign that the Trump administration valued international visitors: “Let me assure you: His remarks were reviewed by the White House and they knew what he was saying,” Dow said. “He wasn’t just doing a one-off Wilbur Ross.”
But back on the convention floor, the mood was less celebratory. Junnette Brinas, senior sales manager for Hotel Edison in New York’s Times Square, said she worried about trepidation among travelers. After Trump’s recent Twitter tirade against Germany, a German group of 40 had canceled their plans to stay at the hotel. Brinas said she had spent weeks pursuing that booking, which she finalized during a trip to Berlin.
“It was gone, just like that,” she said. “Right after that weekend, they pulled out.”
In the next booth, Stan Kravitz, director of sales for the NYC Airporter bus service, said politics had become the focus of nearly every industry conversation. And he said he believes Trump could help steer the talk in a better way.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if the president would just say, ‘Welcome’?” he asked. “That one word is all it would take.”