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Can America beckon tourists on its summer road to recovery?

In ordinary times, the world is awash in travelers at this time of year. But these are no ordinary times. According to the United Nations’ World Tourism Organization, global tourism endured its worst year on record in 2020, thanks to a pandemic, widespread lockdowns and travel restrictions. International arrivals dropped by a whopping 74 percent.

Global destinations welcomed 1 billion fewer international arrivals that year — close to the decline that happened during the 2009 economic crisis.

Expectations are high for this summer’s travel, especially for the tourism sector. Tourism is serious business. According to the UN, tourism employs one in every 10 people in the world, boosting economies of cities, states and countries. (In 2020 alone, the travel and tourism sector globally lost $4.5 trillion and 62 million jobs.)

Tourism is also a measure of global image — how popular your country is, part of what we call its “soft power.”  

Like other nations, the United States has a marketing campaign, called Brand USA. We market ourselves as a diverse country with cultural attractions that welcome and beckon all.

But is our country ready and able to attract record numbers of tourists this summer? 

There are a few disincentives to monitor:

First, gun violence in America is almost a daily headline as evidenced by the recent shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, which left 19 students and two teachers dead.

Tragically, another message of violence was sent around the globe on July 4 as people watched video from Highland Park, Ill., where a gunman took the lives of six people and left many others injured.

And it doesn’t have to be full-scale violence that deters travel. For example, news suggests that it may not be safe to order a cup of coffee in certain American cities. That’s the message some might take from Starbucks as it closes 16 locations around the country because of safety concerns.

Second is the issue of money. High gas prices and inflation are not helping tourism in terms of the amount people spend once they get to their vacation spot. Sticker shock is a reality both for those who live here and for those who visit.

European visitors might find the exchange rate to be a disincentive. The euro has been falling for months and is almost equal to the U.S. dollar. That means less spending power for those coming from across the pond.

Third is the pesky problem of climate change. Nature tourism is a big reason why many come to America. But if our national parks are on fire, or partly closed, as is the case in Yosemite, people might think twice.  

Hiking in the summer is fun in America if it’s not too hot. But at least 10 heat records were broken in cities across the Southwest and Midwest this month. News outlets in Europe are reporting on America’s droughts and how they’re affecting lakes and tourist destinations like Nevada’s Hoover Dam.

Another deterrent for tourists visiting America’s national parks is the registration system. During COVID-19, many more American travelers sought refuge outdoors, and the parks became overwhelmed, leading to changes in rules preventing shorter booking windows. Now the industry is fighting to lift those restrictions so that long-term tourism operators can get back to booking visits.

Lastly, our airports must be welcoming and beckoning. When people read about 1,000 flight cancellations in a single day, they might just pick another destination (not that Europe is any better given the backlog of luggage at London’s Heathrow Airport).

The challenges facing America right now are both internal and external. We need to get our house in order, for ourselves and for our democracy. But we also must remain a welcoming destination — a hopeful place that others want to visit. 

Tara D. Sonenshine is the Edward R. Murrow Professor of Practice at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. 

Tags Mass shootings Starbucks tourism Tourism Tourism in the United States

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