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US politics luring Chinese travellers

Associated Press logo Associated Press 29/03/2017 Beth J Harpaz

Some international travellers are citing politics as a factor in whether to visit the US this year, according to survey research by the tourism marketing agency Brand USA. And not everyone is turned off.

New data shows that the political climate made travellers from 11 countries less likely to visit the US in the next 12 months, while the Chinese were more likely to come.

The number of travellers turned off US travel increased from December to February, with travellers from Mexico the most concerned about political sentiment.

Travellers from Canada, Germany, Australia, the United Kingdom and France registered moderate sensitivity over political sentiment.

Travellers from India, Japan, Brazil and South Korea were the least sensitive to the US political climate as a factor against visiting, but their likelihood of visiting also decreased over the three-month period, just less dramatically than the others.

Chinese travellers were the only nationality in the survey who said the US political climate made them more likely to visit.

Brand USA surveys typically provide a multiple-choice list of factors influencing travel plans. Last summer, respondents began writing in issues related to politics as a factor. "So we created a discreet option for that and began to measure that," Brand USA economist Carroll Rheem said in an interview.

When international travellers were asked in December and again in February "what if any impact the political climate has on their likelihood to visit the US ... over the course of time we saw an increase in that as a reason for people being discouraged from visiting the US," she said.

International arrivals to the US last year experienced the first sustained decline since the US economy began to recover from the recession, according to newly released and revised arrivals data from the US Department of Commerce National Travel and Tourism Office.

Between April and August of 2016, international arrivals to the US dropped nearly 4 per cent compared with the same five months of 2015, declining from 17.8 million to 17.1 million, the data shows. Prior to the second quarter of 2016, international arrivals to the US had climbed every quarter year-over-year since late 2009.

It takes months for arrivals data to accurately be compiled from all U.S. international airports and border crossings, so whether the downward trend continued into fall 2016 and winter 2017 won't be clear for some time.

Despite concerns raised by arrivals and survey data, Rheem said preliminary data on airline bookings to the US for 2017 shows continued growth. That booking data "is consistent with what we're hearing from the trade," Rheem said. "They've said things are stable if not growing. So some of the headlines out there about dramatic downward shifts or challenges in bookings are not really consistent with what we've been seeing in that data."

Rheem cautioned that it's "hard to tell" what the impact of the political concerns showing up in surveys might be. Arrivals data shows what's already happened, but surveys merely hint at future behaviour.

"There's a good group of these people who have concerns who have a wait-and-see approach" about vacation planning, she said. "And there are others who are somewhat impacted or slightly negative but at the same time will end up booking. It's not a complete deterrent, but it's a bit of a concern."

Brand USA adjusts its marketing strategies in response to survey trends in an effort to make travellers feel secure about concerns that might prevent a visit. One strategy involves inviting "influencers" - individuals with large online or social-media followings - to visit the US and then tell stories about their (hopefully positive) experiences.

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