Politics, Tourism and Trump

By Joan C. Henderson

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 further valued as a tool for transmitting positive messages overseas about countries and their rulers which benefits tourism, but can serve other agendas. In addition, tourism can be a vehicle for communicating ideas of national identity and perform a unifying function in multi-cultural societies. Achievements of these ends has some socio-cultural advantages, but 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 travel ban was an effective expression of opposition to an unacceptable regime and would promote political reform. Others were of the opinion that the industry should be free to do business there and tourists should be able to visit and judge the situation for themselves, their presence having positive impacts for residents. 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 would have an avid interest in matters political, yet the attitudes and behaviour of the more aware traveller could be shaped by such considerations, as could commercial decisions of 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 emerge as critical to the selection of a vacation destination, but they are also susceptible to both burnishing and tarnishing by assorted forces which include politics.

In light of these observations, it is interesting to reflect on the implications of the American presidential election for the country’s inbound tourism. After the results were announced in November, there was discussion in the world’s media about whether negative views of the new President would deter tourists. Instances were cited of individuals who would be abandoning plans to visit the USA because of their aversion to the character, conduct and avowed ideology of Donald Trump and aspects of American society which it is believed he embodies. Muslims, who constitute a growing tourism market globally, might also be 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 have spoken about the strong and enduring attraction of America which transcends political differences. It has been one of the leading destinations worldwide for a long period and was the top tourism earner in 2015, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation.

Personal responses to the new political landscape in the USA will not be the only deciding factor for some prospective tourists. Costs are of importance 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 and may be complicated by amendments to the current waiver scheme for 38 countries. 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 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.

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.

Of course, it is early days and the future remains unknown. The President and his team have just commenced their tenure and are untested. There is uncertainty about directions which will be taken and overall performance in domestic and international spheres. Actions of the administration may aggravate any concerns of potential visitors or perhaps lessen them over time. Executive orders already signed are not reassuring, even though they were foreshadowed by election promises. The 90 day ban on travel to the United States by citizens from 7 Muslim-majority countries, suspension of all refugee arrivals for 4 months and review of the visa waiver programme have prompted widespread consternation. The act together with plans to construct a barrier along the Mexican border could be interpreted as signs of a country, or at least a government, mistrustful of and unwelcoming to outsiders. Whatever the outcomes, tourism is not immune from these extraordinary political circumstances and it will be interesting to observe the unfolding situation which affords a distinctive example of the interplay between politics and tourism.

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Authors: Joan C. Henderson
Date: 17 April 2017

About the Author

Joan C. Henderson is an ACI Fellow who has an MSc in Tourism from the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow and a PhD in Economics and Social Studies from the University of Edinburgh. She joined NTU in 1997 and is currently an Associate Professor in Nanyang Business School where she specialises in Tourism Studies. Her research interests include tourism crisis management, destination development and marketing and the presentation of heritage as a tourist attraction. The focus is on such questions within a global context with particular reference to Singapore and the Asia Pacific region. Professor Henderson’s publications include international journal papers, book chapters and a book. She reviews regularly for several journals and is a member of the Editorial Board of four tourism and hospitality journals.