Gun Violence Creates a Troubling New Reality for U.S. Tourism’s Hard Sell

”Breaking news: USA hoping to increase tourism with gifts at border entries!” reads the headline on a sketch of a U.S. border patrol officer handing over a jacket to a visitor sitting in his car. “Welcome to America. Here’s your complimentary bulletproof vest.”  

Granted it’s a meme, on Twitter, and it’s no laughing matter.

But the message evokes a stark reality: the country’s worsening wave of hate crimes combined with mass shootings — this year is on pace to beat last year’s record — may present a bigger impediment to America’s long-term international tourism rebound and competitiveness than any pesky Covid entry protocol.

While it’s true that gun violence didn’t sway opinions to visit the U.S. in the past, that consumer mindset and socio-political context were pre-pandemic. The frequency of mass shootings since then in major cities, plus the nature of the crimes leaning towards race, religion and sexual orientation, and an increase in legislation curbing the rights of LGBTQ and Black communities, all paint a troubling cultural shift in the U.S. towards intolerance, fueled by divisive politics.   

“We understand that the events and headlines we have been seeing may cause concerns to those abroad — we as American citizens also share that concern,” said Chris Thompson, CEO of BrandUSA, in an emailed statement.

Thompson added that one of America’s foundational strengths is its cultural diversity and that BrandUSA’s message to international visitors is that the overwhelming majority of those who live in the U.S. are warm and welcoming people who embrace the diverse nature of our country.

“While violent incidents are always of concern to us and our industry, we have been encouraged that, in recent days, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are nearing agreement on legislative solutions to better protect U.S. communities, which have earned widespread support by Americans,” said Roger Dow, CEO of U.S. Travel Association, in an emailed statement.

Dow said that U.S. Travel is anxious to see that action advance.

Elliott Ferguson, CEO of Destination DC, told Skift that this was indeed an issue at the national level, and that the U.S. travel industry has been discussing it, alongside other hurdles such as visas and testing requirements, and seeing traction in a positive direction with the current bipartisan conversation on gun laws.

“I think one, this is a big country, and two, we need to address the issue — but it’s not an issue where I feel unsafe walking down the street or traveling in the U.S,“ said Ferguson, adding that part of the context should involve the destination in question within the U.S.  

“My office is in Chinatown — I don’t ever want to paint a picture that everything is rosy, but at the same time when you think about a town like in Washington, that has over 180 embassies, people from all over the world, you don’t have a sense of hate crimes tied to being in a city like Washington, which I think is also a part of the conversation,” said Ferguson.

There are no current surveys examining how much gun violence may be deterring travel to America this year. The U.S. Travel Association expects the removal of pre-arrival testing requirements will bring in an additional five million visitors and $90 million in spending by the end of 2022.  But the road to inbound visitation recovery remains long.  International arrivals reached 22 million in 2021, down from pre-pandemic levels of 80 million visitors a year.

Throw in inflation, and the absence of key source market travelers, and the U.S. may have an uphill battle in working towards its new goal of 90 million international visitors a year by 2027 and an annual $279 billion in revenue. The latest consumer sentiment data from BrandUSA shows that likelihood to travel to the U.S. in the next 12 months is only up for South Korea compared to 2019 levels.

As long-haul tourists plan to travel again en masse with more destination choices at their fingertips, is America overestimating its allure as a vacation destination? How will U.S. tourism leaders impart confidence to their international visitors, in a way that goes beyond waiting and watching, and shows that America values the safety of its diverse communities and BIPOC travelers? How will it compete with regions like Europe, now forecasted to be the best performing this year?

The Rise in Mass Shootings and Hate-Based Crimes

There were 611 mass shooting incidents in the U.S. in 2020, a steady increase since 2014 when there were 269, but also a dramatic bump since the pandemic, according to the Gun Violence Archive. So far this first half of 2022, there have been 264 mass shootings, plus 8,816 people killed by guns.  

Hate crimes have risen by a whopping 39 percent in America’s big cities, including anti-Asian, anti-Jewish and anti-LGBTQ crimes, to the point where the FBI recently launched a series of initiatives, including a “National Anti-Hate Crimes” campaign, with billboards, radio ads, and social media. 

A recent investigation also reveals that anti-Black hate crimes in particular rank among the highest in number and have been on a steady ascent since Barack Obama’s election as president of the United States. Cities such as Los Angeles, Phoenix, and San Jose have seen huge increases and mass shootings have spiked as well in Republican states. 

The past two years’ hate-motivated incidents — the mass shooting of three spas in Atlanta, the mass shooting in Buffalo targeting Black residents at the supermarket, and the mass murder Mexican American children and teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, among others — have placed America at a potential turning point in addressing decades of rising gun violence and it’s put international visitors on alert. 

“I feel that I could be targeted because of the way I look because the violence against Asians and Black people doesnt seem to be decreasing, especially with the ready access to guns,” said Larissa  De Villa, an Australian-Asian IT professional at a bank in Australia, who began avoiding America when Donald Trump’s divisive immigration policies emerged. 

Social media and news seem to indicate Americans don’t feel safe either, De Villa said, so how much safer might tourists feel?

“My husband and I have been finding it significantly less appealing — even more distasteful — to travel back to the States at the moment,” said David Paul Appell, veteran travel writer and co-owner of travel site Tripatini, who is currently based in Madrid. “Not just because of the appalling epidemic of mass shootings and rising hate crimes, but more generally because of the increasing toxicity, lack of civility, and sometimes downright stupidity of too much of the country’s politics and culture.”

Appell said the couple had planned to spend the winter in South Beach, but that is no longer the case. “We find ourselves wanting to spend as little time as possible in the U.S., mostly to see family and friends. It’s really a shame, because there are places which are still on our bucket list like New Mexico and the Pacific Northwest, but frankly the impetus just isn’t there anymore.”

Lavinia D’Souza, a U.K.-based analyst and writer at Continent Hop, said that the mass shootings taking place in popular areas of U.S. cities, in addition to relaxed pandemic rules, have given her pause. 

“As a tourist, it makes me unsure about visiting anytime soon and even if I do I will probably try to stay away from touristy places,” said D’Souza.  

That “white supremacy is as American as applie pie” is the sentiment that’s sticking in the media and minds of global consumers, but it’s also a phenomenon that’s very real for U.S. citizens of color. 

Predictions are already out that election years see increased violence. As recently as June 6, 2022, the week that U.S. travel leaders were celebrating the return of international suppliers and media at IPW in Orlando, an Asian American young man was attacked in San Francisco. Then followed a white supremacist group’s plan to disrupt a Pride event in Idaho which was thwarted at the end of the first week of June.

For Destination DC’s Ferguson, it’s about context in destination as well as providing safety information for travelers. “The gun laws in Washington, DC are far more stringent than anywhere else in the U.S.,” he said. 

The statistics tied to some of these shootings show that it’s a small percentage of an opportunity for someone to be in one of those even though they are horrible and unfortunate, Ferguson added. “That’s why we are focus on changing the gun laws and communicating to the global community, the overall feeling of being in America and safety.”

Destination DC provides safety advice online for visitors, meeting planners and associations on how to navigate urban environments. “You’re going to see [bad news] more than you’re going to see the peaceful rallies or even the gun rights rally that was held in the city over the weekend that attracted hundreds of thousands of people.” 

Presumably violence is on an uptick in major destinatons post-pandemic, including in Cancun, Mexico, where the military have been sent to protect tourist areas, while Toronto, Canada also sees an increase in hate crimes. 

But the U.S. still ranks at the top of the list in the highest number of gun deaths among nations considered to be “developed.” What’s more, it is the hate-based nature of the cimes that poses the greatest threat to rebuilding confidence in America as a destination that is welcoming to all. 

A New National Tourism Plan That’s Pro-Equity, Pro-Sustainability

America’s new National Travel and Tourism Strategy released by the U.S. Department of Commerce this month, reveals just how far the industry has come in aiming to rebuild better. The plan’s policies, laid out in four key pillars , center on principles of equity, inclusion and sustainability, including:

Promoting the U.S. as a travel destination: marketing efforts must broaden “to encourage visitation to underserved communities”Ensuring diverse, inclusive, accessible tourism experiences, which means “focusing on underserved communities” in developing diverse tourism products Building a sustainable sector, by protecting nature and ensuring resilience against climate change.

The plan also recognizes that the diversity of the United States is a significant asset that attracts tourists, and thus prioritizes outreach to diverse communties. This includes the need for imagery that conveys “audiences of all abilities and backgrounds so everyone can see themselves enjoying federal lands and waters and feel welcome and safe there.”

“The new National Travel and Tourism Strategy comes at an important time when international travel spending in the U.S. was still 78% below 2019 levels in 2021,” said U.S. Travel’s Dow. “The strategy sets out specific actions that the government can take to rebuild our travel economy and make it more globally competitive than it was before the pandemic.”

For all of its sustainability, equity and inclusion cornerstones, however, America’s national tourism strategy to lure the international visitor is silent on the issue of communicating safety and security for communities of color around the nation.

A new national tourism plan crafted and released just as historic levels of violence against America’s diversity may have been a propitious time to include, as a policy, a targeted DEI marketing strategy to tackle visitor safety, under the “promoting the US as a travel destination” pillar. 

The plan also begs the question for all tourism: can a sustainable and equitable travel industry emerge in a nation that struggles with prioritizing racial justice?

Brand USA and Disney Tap Into America’s Pop Culture Power

“Generations of Magic” is the new multilingual campaign launched this month by Brand USA, in collaboration with Walt Disney World — a company most recently embroiled in controversy and an employee walk-out for not speaking out against anti-LGBTQ legislation in Florida. 

The video shows a family enjoying a visit to the world-famous theme park, as the grandfather reads out loud the letter he’s writing to his grandchild about exploring, keeping an open mind and remembering “the world is a more magical place with you in it.”

Is betting on the allure of American pop culture sufficient in bringing back international tourists in this transformed travel ecosystem?

This reporter recalls the unforgettable experience of Disney World as a seven-year old African kid who was visiting America for the first time, long before becoming a U.S. citizen. But the terror of ongoing race-targeted attacks and shootings in public spaces and the lack of political will to curb them has since overshadowed those memories.

The allure of Disney may well bring back families with pent-up travel desire who have little to fear in today’s America or have context.

“In Europe there is a deep sense that US rampant gun violence is a totally domestic issue, tragic of course, both a stain to the country’s image and a total mystery, but that it won’t affect the visitor’s everyday life,” said Vincent Bontoux, a consultant based in France, who just returned from a five-day trip to New York City with his 87-year-old mother. She was eager to revisit the city where she met Bontoux’s father in 1956, who passed away last year.

Bontoux said that among the French, as much as everybody wonders why on earth Congress steadfastly refuses to vote any gun control law, no one would cancel a US side vacation because of any gun-related danger. He attributes this to a lack of experiencing mass shootings, which don’t exist in France, as well as two years of no travel.

“French tourists who vacation abroad also like to ‘play it political,’” added Bontoux. “For an American vacation, they will stress they only go to blue cities and states, not the Trumpland they despise.”

For travelers of color, as well as LGBTQ communities, the cycle of news flashing on their screens faster than they can say Disney and the slim odds of being at the wrong place at the wrong time might not shake the feeling that America isn’t the place to be right now. For them, safety in travel is about well-being and inclusion — at home and abroad. The risk is in the hundreds of billions of dollars that BIPOC travelers and their allies contribute to U.S. tourism might ultimately shift elsewhere.

“Collectively, when you look at all the reasons why America is an attractive destination, that has not changed,” said Destination DC’s Ferguson. “There’s still a level of interest in our country that fortunately for us has not been skewed 100 percent. We still have to focus on those things that make us a great nation and those things that don’t make us a great nation, as it pertains to the bipartisan politics, which is unfortunate.”

UPDATED: This story was updated to include statements received from the U.S. Travel Association.

Source: skift.com