Coming to America, or not, this summer

In June 2016, the United States and India decided to augment bilateral travel and tourism cooperation, leading to the declaration of 2017 as the U.S. and India Travel and Tourism Partnership Year.

But the success of that partnership is now shadowed by doubts cast by President Donald Trump’s restrictive stance on immigration. Some U.S. travel industry experts believe that this year may not see much of an increase in the number of Indian travelers to the U.S. compared to previous years.

Trump’s immigration policies, they say, have created a perception overseas that the U.S. is not as welcoming to foreigners as it once was. Such perception, whether right or wrong, can adversely impact the industry and the economy.

The number of Indians visiting the U.S. has gone up substantially over the years, making India one of the most important sources for travel and tourism to the U.S., and the largest source of foreign tourists in 2015 when more than 1 million visited the U.S.

Factors contributing to the increased travel to the U.S. include a growing, consumption-driven economy and an increasingly affluent middle class. Patricia Rojas-Ungár, vice president of public affairs, U.S. Travel Association, said in April this year that while Trump is making good on his campaign promise to increase border security it may have unintended consequences for tourism.

“We can all agree that national security is paramount,” she said. “However, when complex security restrictions aren’t balanced by measures to make the process welcoming and efficient, it could deter international business and leisure travel, hurt American jobs and cost the country billions,” she said in a speak piece on USTA website.

According to Department of Commerce figures, the average Indian visitor to the U.S. spent $5,645 per visit in 2015, ranking India among the top 10 inbound markets by average spending.

Although figures for 2016 were not available at the time of filing this report, the trend was expected to have continued last year. But the administration under Trump may make a difference between 2016 and this year because of new immigration policies, a climate of intolerance towards people of color and a perception that foreigners are not as welcome as they once were.

An indication of this attitude came earlier this year when the American Association of College Registrars and Admissions Officers said in a report that 39 percent of U.S. colleges out of more than 250 U.S. educational institutions that took part in a survey are expected to see declines in applications from international students this fall because of perceptions of a “less welcoming climate” for foreign students.

Students from India accounted for the second highest number of foreign students to the U.S. in the 2015-16 academic year — 165,918 students — but ranked second in the survey’s list of countries concerned about sending students to the U.S.

According to preliminary estimates released by the U.S. Department of Commerce for 2015, education receipts from foreign students stood at $5.1 billion. International travel is America’s top service export and the key to keeping millions of American jobs at home and student arrivals and receipts from students also count as part of overall visitations and spending from a country.

The department notes in its 2015 market profile on India that while vacation holiday accounted for 15 percent of tourists arrivals in 2015, student arrival counted for 5 percent of the total travelers the same year.

Some of the leading Indian-American tour operators in the U.S. who primarily organize Americans’ visits to India, believe Trump’s policies will have an adverse impact on Indians’ visits on business trips as well as personal trips which combined account for nearly 70 percent of Indians’ tourism here.

Mok Singh, group vice-president of California-based SITA World Tours, said while the U.S. traffic to India has been demonstrably growing in the past few years, the same may not be true for Indian travelers to the U.S. in 2017.

“I think there is serious concern about Indians coming here,” Singh said. “When Trump won the election, there was certain amount of euphoria in India because people thought he would deal with the fundamentalist threat in a more aggressive manner than his processor.

But as some of the policies of the current administration have unfolded, people realize how it would impact people of Indian origin, including significant review of the H1-B visa program, and much greater scrutiny of visa applications.

A realization is coming to take hold that perhaps the U.S .is not as welcoming as it used to be.”

The USTA said while it is unlikely for the industry to begin to see the full, measurable effects of Trump’s executive orders on travel and immigration for another month, advanced search data indicates “signs of slowing” for international travel this year.

“While I think it may not affect the numbers for the first six to eight months of 2017, it certainly will have a negative impact in the latter part of 2017 and in 2018,” Singh said.

In contrast, American travel to India does not seem to have any apparent issues and has been growing. From 1.03 million American tourists in 2012 the number went up to 1.11 million in 2014.

In 2014, total foreign exchange earnings from tourism were $20.24 billion compared to $18.45 billion in 2013, registering a growth of 9.7 percent. According to the Tourism Ministry, tourist arrivals from the U.S. during 2012, 2013 and 2014 were the highest with the percentage share of 15.81 percent, 15.58 percent and 14.57 percent, respectively.

The U.S. was the top among the 10 countries sending the highest number of tourists. The importance of travel and tourism between U.S. and India not only as an economic engine but as a key facilitator of people-to-people ties was stressed in June 2016 by Richard Verma, then U.S. Ambassador to India, in an address to the Indo-American Chamber of Commerce in New Delhi. Echoing the words of Chester Bowles, the former U.S.

Ambassador to India, who wrote extensively on Indian tourism in his 1971 memoir, Verma said that “foreign tourists must see the promise of India’s future as well as India’s ancient glories and its vast natural beauties.”

To give further momentum to the already growing visitations of American tourists to India, the Indian government in association with the Gujarat state government and the tourism ministry was to hold the “Glorious India” trade expo in New Jersey on May 27 and 28.

The event is expected to make a pitch for Indian tourism to attract American tourists and is in line with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Brand India” promotion.

“This two-day expo will have major players in the industry from India and also local Indian and American tour operators who will participate in an exclusive seminar on tourism in India.

Although garments and handicrafts industry will also be highlighted during the expo, tourism is one area we want to promote as part of ‘Glorious India’ event,” said Drumil Patel of Praveg Communications Ltd., an event management company that is organizing the trade expo.

Meanwhile, Brand USA, a marketing and travel promotion company, has announced a mission to India, Sept. 19 through Sept. 23 in specific cities to promote American tourism in India.

Singh said his company estimates more Americans would likely visit India this year — probably 15 percent more than in 2016 although it is hard to put a concrete figure because the estimates are his own company appraisals and based on anecdotal evidence.

But whatever the ultimate figures, which the Indian government will release next year, it certainly will benefit the Indian economy. The arrival of the growing number of American tourists in India is a boon for its economy but the situation as far as the U.S. is concerned does not augur well this year.

“The current situation is going to have a significant impact on the U.S. economy because not just India, but a lot of other nationalities are turning their attention away from America and many people are taking holidays in other countries which are perceived to be more welcoming, and certainly people from the Middle East are avoiding America. Overall, I see no way that our economy will avoid the downward trend in tourism to the U.S.,” Singh said.

“I think we are going to see a negative impact, but how big the impact is going to be depends on what kind of messages can be conveyed by this administration to prospective foreign tourists over the next three to six months, but the impact has begun to be felt by people in the industry.”

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