No Trump Chill on Tourism to New York

Legal travelers not deterred by the hype

By Andrew R. Arthur on November 14, 2017

Since the 2016 election, commentators have speculated about the negative effects that the presidency of Donald J. Trump would have on foreign nationals traveling legally to the United States. New evidence suggests, however, that those concerns appear to have been overstated.

On November 11, 2017, the New York Post issued an editorial captioned "Turns out Trump didn't ruin America's economy". While much of that editorial relates to how early prognostications about how the Trump presidency would adversely influence the stock market and gross domestic product (GDP) turned out not to be true, it began on a slightly different note:

Foreign tourism to New York City is set to rise 3.6 percent this year — defying yet another of the many doomsday predictions about Donald Trump's presidency.

Back in February, the city tourism agency said Trump's "travel ban and related rhetoric" would mean a drop of 300,000 visitors this year. But the NYC & Co. prophecy proved false.

With respect to this latter statistic, in March 2017 USA Today reported:

The Trump administration's travel restrictions could be causing a chilling effect that is leading to a prediction that this city — the nation's top international tourism destination — will see its first dip in foreign visitors since the recession.

The city projects it will see 300,000 fewer international visitors this year than it did in 2016, a 2.1% dip. It's the first time that group of travelers has shrunk since 2008, according to NYC & Company, New York's tourism arm.

"These restrictions are creating an image problem for many international travelers, regardless if they're included in the ban or not,'' says Chris Heywood, a spokesman for NYC & Company.

It's not only the temporary travel ban against some Muslim-majority nations that the administration initiated Jan. 27, but the talk of a wall on the Mexican border, that is spurring international visitors to stay home, he says.

Meaning no disrespect to Heywood or NYC & Company, the group's projections would appear to have been mixing apples and oranges, with perhaps a bit of bias toward one of that city's biggest boosters and developers thrown in.

According to NYC & Company's website, in 2014 (the last year for which it provided statistics), international tourists to New York hailed from a wide variety of countries, with the United Kingdom, Canada, Brazil, the People's Republic of China, France, Australia, Germany, and Italy leading the list. Those eight countries accounted for 53 percent of the city's total international visitors that year. In addition, 424,000 Mexican nationals, according to those statistics, visited New York City that year.

I am not an expert on tourism, but I do have some immigration experience, and doubt that any significant number of those 424,000 Mexican nationals entered the United States illegally across the Southwest border in order to make an excursion to the Big Apple. Given this fact, it is not entirely clear why NYC & Company believed that "talk of a wall on the Mexican border" might have a deterrent effect on the number of visitors to the five boroughs following the inauguration of the president.

Further, the president's travel orders related to seven countries, later pared down to six: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, with Iraq removed from the March executive order. None of those countries appears on NYC & Company's list of "Key International NYC Markets (by country)" for 2005 to 2014. This is not to say that no tourists from those countries vacationed in New York City during that 10-year period, but none were in the top-24 sending countries. This raises the question why NYC & Company concluded "the temporary travel ban against some Muslim-majority nations that the administration initiated Jan. 27" would "spur[] international visitors to stay home."

Given the purpose of those orders, moreover, logic would suggest that they would, in fact, make it more likely that foreign nationals would come to visit the United States generally, and New York City in particular.

Both Executive Order (EO) 13769 and EO 13780 had as their stated purpose the protection of the United States and the American people from terrorist attacks by foreign nationals seeking admission to this country by more thorough vetting of nationals of certain countries of concern. Lost in the heated rhetoric surrounding these orders is the fact that this is an important goal, and that the United States has been, and continues to be the target of terrorist attacks by foreign nationals, the most recent of which occurred in Manhattan on October 31, 2017.

When I plan foreign travel for myself and my family, I consider a number of factors, including the quality of accommodations are available, the number of sites to see, and the accessibility of local attractions. I am sure that I am not alone, however, in keeping in the back of my mind whether my destination is safe. There is a reason that I don't have San Pedro Sula or Kabul on my list of getaways. In September 2016, in fact, the New York Times' travel section published an article captioned "Where Is Safe? Travelers Seek Havens in Wake of Europe Attacks".

In fact, over the last two decades safety has become one of the selling points for New York City. The drama "Death Wish" and the comedy "The Out-of-Towners", each of which was released in the 1970s, portrayed a different, and much more dangerous, city than the reasonably clean and well-policed Gotham of today.

Particularly indicative of this period in New York city's history is the 1975 pamphlet "Welcome to Fear City—A Survival Guide for Visitors to the City of New York", which was published by unions representing police and firefighters in their battle against budget cuts proposed by then-New York City Mayor Abe Beame. It offered such helpful tips as "Stay off the streets after 6 P.M.", "Do not walk", "Avoid public transportation", and "Do not leave valuables in your hotel room, and do not deposit them in the hotel vault." As Kevin Baker writing in the Guardian has noted "[m]any of the warnings in the Fear City pamphlet were, of course, ludicrous exaggerations or outright lies" but:

Yet a frightening truth lurked beneath much of the pamphlet's calamity howling. Crime, and violent crime, had been increasing rapidly for years. The number of murders in the city had more than doubled over the past decade, from 681 in 1965 to 1,690 in 1975. Car thefts and assaults had also more than doubled in the same period, rapes and burglaries had more than tripled, while robberies had gone up an astonishing tenfold.

It's difficult to convey just how precarious, and paranoid, life in New York felt around that time. Signs everywhere warned you to mind your valuables, and to keep neck chains or other jewellery tucked away while on the subway. You became alert to where anyone else might be in relation to you, augmented by quick looks over your shoulder that came to seem entirely natural.

I knew few people who had been mugged or worse, but everyone I knew had suffered the violation of a home break-in. Worst was the idea that anything could happen, anywhere, at anytime. Female colleagues working in midtown routinely found their handbags had somehow been rifled during lunch hours, their credit cards and wallets gone.

For various reasons, violent crime in New York City began to drop in the late eighties and early nineties, and by 2015 The Economist rated New York City number 28 in the world based on personal safety.

That said, however, of all the cities in the United States, New York City has been a particular target for terrorists. For years after September 11, 2001, (and to a certain extent, still today) the World Trade Center site was known as "Ground Zero". In an article reporting that then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was urging that this sobriquet be retired, the BBC noted:

The term was first used in 1946 in a New York Times report about the bombing of Hiroshima in Japan, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and it soon came to mean the ground underneath an exploding bomb.

Its first use in relation to 9/11 came within a few hours. "Ground Zero" is thought to have first been mentioned by a survivor in a television interview and subsequently by reporters.

But of course, September 11 was not even the first attack on the World Trade Center. A 1,200-pound truck bomb in a parking garage beneath 2 World Trade Center killed six and injured 1,000 more in February 1993.

And, that is just one target. I could mention the 2009 "Newburgh Four" plot "to detonate explosives near a synagogue and Jewish community center in the Riverdale section of the Bronx"; the 2010 Times Square bomb plot; the 2016 Chelsea pressure cooker bomb attack; yet another planned pressure cooker bomb attack in the New York metropolitan area; and a plot involving two women from Queens to make a homemade bomb that has yet to go to trial.

Why New York? Perhaps it is because it is the largest city in the United States, or the center of American economic prowess, or because it is the most (arguably) famous city in this country. In any event, any effort to protect the United States from terrorist attacks necessarily would render New York City safer.

So why would the president's efforts to beef up security in the United States lead travel experts to conclude that those efforts would have a "chilling effect" on tourism to the United States? Perhaps they failed to appreciate that foreign nationals have the same concerns about safety in travel that Americans do, or maybe they simply got caught up in the anti-Trump hype.

I personally like Angela Merkel, but the fact that she is the German chancellor does not make it any more or less likely that I would want to go to Oktoberfest or Oberammergau. I seriously doubt that any significant percentage of the German population would decide to skip Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade or the New Year's Eve Balldrop at Times Square because of Donald Trump.

In any event, concerns that the president's policies would cause a decline in tourism in New York City were mistaken. Don't believe the hype; foreign visitors obviously don't.