The number of international visitors to the United States rose slightly in 2017, and visitor spending hit a record despite travel industry fears of a decline due to President Donald Trump's travel ban, immigration stance and other policies.
International arrivals totaled 76.9 million, up 0.7 percent from 76.4 million in 2016, according to revised figures released Wednesday by the National Travel & Tourism Office. Strong gains in visitors from South Korea (+17.8 percent), Brazil (+10.8 percent) and Ireland (+9.2 percent) offset sizable declines in visitors from Mexico (-6.1 percent) and the Middle East (-12 percent).
Mexico is the biggest source of international visitors to the U.S. after Canada, and the number of visitors from Mexico to the U.S. fell by more than 1 million in 2017. Visitors from Mexico totaled 17.8 million, down from nearly 19 million in 2016.
International visitor spending rose 2 percent, to $251.4 billion, according to the office, part of the U.S. Department of Commerce's International Trade Administration.
“International travelers continue to set spending records visiting the United States, and I expect that trend to continue in 2018 spawning further job growth,” Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said in a statement.
The revised figures come after the travel and tourism office temporarily suspended the release of its preliminary international visitor statistics because of a discrepancy on overseas visitors from U.S. Customs and Border Protection records. Officials said Wednesday that a programming error at airport kiosks misclassified an estimated 4.5 million records relating to the residency of overseas visitors. The upshot: Initial figures from the office overstated the decline in overseas visitors when compared with other tourism indicators. The final tally shows overseas visitors, which excludes arrivals from Mexico and Canada, up 2 percent in 2017.
The gain in international visitors in 2017, after initial reports of gloom, is a positive for the travel industry. But the overall increase was less than 1 percent, and the number of international visitors was below 2015 levels, when nearly 78 million international visitors arrived in the United States.
The U.S. Travel Association, a trade group charged with boosting travel to and within the U.S., focuses more attention on another key indicator – the nation's share of international visitors – and says it has fallen. The country's share peaked at 13.6 percent in 2015 and this year is likely to be in the 12 percent range, according to Roger Dow, the group's president and CEO. Some competing countries are boosting their international visitor numbers at a clip of 6 to 8 percent a year while the United States' growth is basically flat.
"Basically, the U.S. hasn't been keeping up when it comes to share,'' he said. "The rest of the world is growing faster in long-haul travel than we are. And the reason that’s important is 1½ points of share to the U.S.economy is 7 million visitors, $32 billion and 100,000 jobs.''
Dow blames a variety of factors including: the strength of the U.S. dollar; weak economies in South America and parts of Europe; the proliferation of low-cost airlines in Europe, which makes travel to and within Europe more affordable; "rhetoric coming out of our government''; and tightening national security.
Dow and several travel industry leaders, including the CEOs of hotel chains Marriott, Hyatt, Hilton and Wyndham, brought their concerns to President Trump and top advisers including chief economic adviser Larry Kudlow and Ivanka Trump, during a meeting at the White House in early September. It was USTA's first meeting with the president.
Dow said Trump, who has experience in the travel business with his hotels and golf courses, acknowledged the industry's concerns upfront.
"He said, 'I understand we've got some challenges with international travel,' " Dow recalled. " 'You have to understand we want to be secure,' to which we said, 'So do we.' ''
Dow said the executives told Trump the administration "could do a better job at telling the world that they're welcome.''
The group also said an expansion of the visa waiver program beyond the current roster of 38 countries would be a big help, suggesting countries including Brazil. Dow said visitation from South Korea soared after it was added to the list. Residents from a visa waiver country only need a passport to visit the United States.
Dow said Trump, who has travel experience from his hotel business, was optimistic and said, "Let's work together.''
"To us, it was the opening of the door,'' Dow said. "We had to get the travel industry in there to begin to get (the administration) to understand the role that we can play. I think we get overlooked. People talk manufacturing a lot.''
Airline executives are not represented on the CEO Roundtable. The industry has its own trade group, Airlines for America. Top airline executives met with Trump in early 2017.