Editor’s Note: David R. Wheeler is a freelance writer and a journalism professor at the University of Tampa. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Spain will soon unseat the US from our No. 2 spot on the list of the world’s top tourist destinations.
Didn’t it feel good to be No. 2 for a while? Well, enjoy the last few months of that ranking, because we’re about to become No. 3.
Although definitive numbers will not be published until the spring, France is expected to remain the most popular tourist destination in the world in 2018, with second place going to Spain, instead of the US, according to the UN World Tourism Organization.
I’ve got nothing against Spain. Its natural and architectural beauty, along with the warmth of its people, make it my favorite travel destination by far. But there’s a reason more world travelers are choosing Spain over the US these days, and it’s not because the Grand Canyon became less grand in the past year.
It’s not too much of a leap to surmise that Donald Trump’s rhetoric is scaring people away.
The number of international tourists visiting the US dropped by about 4% in the first six months of 2017, according to data released in December by the US National Travel and Tourism Office and the Department of Commerce.
“It’s known as the ‘Trump Slump,’” writes Arthur Frommer, founder of the popular Frommer’s Travel Guides. “And I know of no reputable travel publication to deny it.”
The tragedy of lost tourism dollars extends far beyond the condos and restaurants of resort towns and into the realm of irony. Why? Because tourism dollars are pure “profit” for the US. Have you noticed how, despite all the lost manufacturing jobs, companies still haven’t figured out how to outsource our majestic mountains? Or our beautiful beaches?
These are treasures that can’t be manufactured elsewhere. If Trump is going to obsess over dollars flowing into and out of the US, wouldn’t he want to keep the tourism dollars flowing?
But it’s not just tourism. His harsh rhetoric against other countries is also hurting the United States’ higher-education sector, another economic area where we’ve been “winning,” to use one of his favorite words.
The top tourist destinations in 2017
When it comes to higher education, America still has the best brand in the world. In fact, people are willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars – per person – to acquire a degree from an American college or university.
Education export dollars topped $35 billion in 2015, and the trade gap is lopsidedly in our favor – and growing. Will it stay that way? If Trump doesn’t stop his reckless rhetoric, international students may start choosing a British or Australian university instead.
Earlier this month, The New York Times reported that the number of new international students declined an average of 7% this past fall. The preliminary figures come from a survey of 500 colleges by the Institute of International Education. “Nearly half of the campuses surveyed reported declines,” the Times article notes.
Why else is this important? It’s not just that we’re making money off our educational export of the American college degree. International students are far more likely to pay full sticker price at an American college or university, thus driving down the cost for Americans. As Business Insider recently noted, “International students are now ‘subsidizing’ public American universities to the tune of $9 billion a year.”
By the way, the Muslim-majority countries Indonesia, Turkey, Iran, Kuwait and Pakistan send roughly 45,000 students to the US, and Saudi Arabia alone sends another 60,000 students, according to an analysis by Dick Startz, an economist at UC Santa Barbara.
But wait – there’s more. Although factories have been leaving the country for decades – creating the notorious Rust Belt, the tragedy of failed cities, and probably the opioid epidemic – college towns have been beacons of hope. As Bob Davis notes in an article for The Wall Street Journal, many small-town and Rust Belt cities have bounced back after losing jobs to China.
What do they have in common? You guessed it: a college or university.
“Counties that are home to a land-grant university have lower unemployment rates than the US overall and bounced back faster from the most recent recession,” according to the Journal article.
One more thing. The desperation that led to the rise of Trump has one common theme: decent jobs. Middle Americans lost their good jobs, and they want them back. According to The Wall Street Journal, one out of every 40 Americans gets his or her paycheck from a college or university.
Back in 2015, Trump tweeted, “Mexican leaders and negotiators are much tougher and smarter than those of the U.S. Mexico is killing us on jobs and trade. WAKE UP!”
Well, here’s a wake-up call on trade, especially for you, Mr. Trump. Want to win big on trade and save a huge number of well-paying American jobs? Get back to a welcoming attitude. When it comes to tourism and education, the money will follow.