Travel ban lifted, but welcome mat is frayed

Travel ban lifted, but welcome mat is frayed

Before a Washington state judge suspended enforcement of
President Trump’s refugee and immigration ban, travel organizations from ASTA
to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) had voiced concern
that the original order would discourage travel and harm the U.S. economy.

Industry trade associations and companies mostly complained
that the order, which banned the citizens of seven countries from entering the
U.S. for 90 days, painted the U.S. as unwelcoming to travelers and that the
confusion around its implementation had created an environment of uncertainty,
which is never good for the industry. 

ASTA CEO Zane Kerby said, “It’s clear from our member
feedback that the developments of the past few weeks have injected a great deal
of uncertainty into the travel industry, from disruption for travelers to or
from the seven countries flagged by the administration to fear about how
Americans will be received abroad to aborted business and leisure trips.”

He added: “ASTA is concerned that ongoing uncertainty
will create a chilling effect on travel and negatively impact our members’
businesses. We therefore once again urge the administration to expeditiously
set clear rules of the road so that travel industry stakeholders can serve
their clients, that travel disruptions are kept to a minimum and that the
traveling public can maintain confidence in an industry vital to our nation’s
economy.” 

Trade groups representing the inbound travel industry
expressed concern that the order made the U.S. appear unwelcoming and would ultimately
have a negative impact on visitor numbers.

Lisa Simon, executive director of the International Inbound
Travel Association said that the order, “along with other plans by the
administration to strengthen security,” could have a negative effect and said
her organization’s members were concerned about a prolonged disruption to
inbound travel if clarification on the order’s implementation was not issued
swiftly.

Simon said that the impact went beyond people who originally
could not visit the U.S. as a direct result of the order, to “those who
may be afraid to come due to the lack of clarity and other restrictions being
discussed by the administration; and those who may simply choose not to come in
response to the current political climate.”

National Tour Association president Pam Inman also said her
members were worried.

“Based on member feedback, we know these recent actions
are giving international visitors the wrong perception of the United States,”
Inman said. “We are a welcoming country.”

Holding their breath, fingers crossed

Despite their concerns, tour operators that bring travelers
into the U.S. said that in the days following the original order, they had not
seen any dip in arrivals.

John Warner, vice president of global sales for
Toronto-based G Adventures, said that as of last week, the U.S. remained a
popular destination for G Adventures travelers from around the globe, including
Canada, mainland Europe, the U.K., Australia and New Zealand, after a month in
which visits to the U.S. from these regions were up 12% compared with January
2015.

Warner acknowledged that there were indications that travel
to the U.S. could still be negatively impacted due to media coverage of Trump’s
new policies coupled with the weakness of the pound and euro against the U.S.
dollar.

But, he added, “As a global travel provider, we are
accustomed to seeing changes in leadership and policies and the adverse impacts
they can have on short-term travel trends. We remain optimistic that inbound
travel guidance to the U.S. will soon become more clear and that the U.S. will
continue to welcome vacation travelers of all nationalities.”

Intrepid Travel, too, said the company was optimistic about
the U.S. maintaining its position as a popular travel destination.

“In light of the recent policy announcement by
president Trump, we are not anticipating our travelers will stop visiting the
United States,” said Intrepid Travel director Leigh Barnes. “Nor do
we expect our U.S. travelers will be deterred from visiting countries around
the world.”

Barnes said that Intrepid’s U.S. bookings have reached
record numbers already this year, with inbound travel to the U.S. from the
Australia and New Zealand market up 89% compared with the same time last year.
Visits from the U.K. were up more than 200%.

However, before the order was suspended, a poll by the
Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) found that 31% of its members
expected the ban to reduce their companies’ business travel in the next three
months.

The survey’s respondents were chiefly worried about the
potential for other countries to respond to the ban, with 63% citing that as a
cause for concern as well as the potential for complications in traveling to
the U.S. (56%) and increased threats to U.S. travelers abroad (54%).

When it came to their own travelers, 55% said they were
concerned about “green card and approved visa credibility to enter the
U.S.” Fifty percent were concerned about increased harassment in general
as well as harassment of U.S. travelers going to and from the Middle East.
Another 22% did not have any of the listed concerns.

The GBTA found that 29% of those polled believed the ban
would affect their company’s business travel for the next three to six months,
while 28% said they felt the impact would last from six to 12 months and
beyond.

“Business travel drives lasting business growth and is
a leading indicator for jobs,” GBTA COO Michael McCormick said. “With
30% of companies expected to reduce travel, the economy will certainly take a
hit.”

Notably absent from the chorus of strong reactions to the
travel ban was the U.S. Travel Association, which merely urged the
administration to conduct its review “quickly,” and Brand USA, which
issued no response to the order and did not respond to requests for comment.

Iran specialists hit hard

Most travel agents in the U.S. do not sell much travel to or
from the seven targeted countries: Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and
Yemen.

But for the subset of agents who specialize in selling Iran,
the original travel ban seriously impacted their businesses.

Parisa Parsi of Cyrus Travel in Irvine, Calif., said
cancellations had come in swiftly, about 10 per day, and even more troubling,
new bookings had ground to a halt during what is usually a busy time, as
Iranians living in the U.S. plan trips coinciding with Nowruz, the Persian new
year, on March 21.

“Business is down just as we started to sell for the
[Persian] new year and when a lot of people get their tickets for the summer,”
Parsi said. “Now the business is totally down from both sides: Nobody
purchased new tickets and those who already purchased want a refund.”

Parsi said that even Iranians with U.S. green cards were
afraid to travel.

“They are concerned that the rules will change again,”
she said. “They say, ‘We are traveling to Iran now, but after three
months, if we want to return the rules could change and there will be another
ban for even green-card holders.’ There are a lot of cancellations.”

General travel agents also reported having clients caught up
in the travel ban.

Peter Carideo, president of CRC Travel in Chicago, said that
an Iranian-born client who is a U.S. citizen and has lived here for 50 years
decided not to travel abroad after Carideo pointed out that his passport says
he was born in Iran. The client decided to travel domestically, fearing he
might have trouble getting back home. 

“We think we’re being overly cautious, but they don’t
want to have any issue,” Carideo said. “There is no prevailing logic
in the way things are being handled, so we have to err on the side of caution
for now. I don’t trust that people are applying [the executive order] the same
way across the board.”

This proved true for another agent’s client, who seemed to
be mistakenly caught up in the travel ban’s confusing rollout. Sara Butruff,
owner of Travel Leaders in Apple Valley, Minn., said a client with a British
passport and a Canadian green card was not able to board a flight from
Minnesota back home to Calgary, Alberta, with Delta saying his Canadian green
card prevented him from being able to board the plane. 

“It makes no sense,” Butruff said. “He is not
a part of the seven-country ban. He is a regular green-card holder from one of
our allies. It must have been a massive fluke in the system.”

A Delta spokesperson said that scenario did not make sense
but added, “We don’t comment on an individual customer’s situation.”

Butruff is now careful to ask all clients about their
citizenship status in any foreign country to be sure they are prepared. Other
than that, the travel ban has only impacted her in terms of questions from
clients about last week’s chaos at the airports.

“We just make sure to tell them to arrive early and
give themselves extra time,” she said. “You just never know.”

Threats of retaliation

For tour operators that sell tours to Iran and have been
touting surging interest in the country over the last year, Iran’s threat to
take reciprocal action in response to Trump’s order and possibly ban U.S.
visitors was the most pressing concern.

Following Trump’s order, Iran’s Foreign Ministry issued a
statement threatening that the Iranian government “will take reciprocal
measures in order to safeguard the rights of its citizens.”

Adding to the confusion, Iran’s foreign minister, Javad
Zarif, tweeted later that, “All with valid Iranian visa will be gladly
welcomed.”

In the absence of any concrete action, tour operators with
Iran itineraries said last week they were proceeding with departures as
planned.

Late last Thursday, Wilderness Adventures said it had been
informed that while Iran would honor already issued visas, no new visas would
be issued to U.S. travelers. As of press time, however, all other tour
operators contacted by Travel Weekly said they had not been informed by Iran of
any new visa restrictions.

G Adventures, whose U.S. sales to Iran doubled in the last
year, notified the nearly 30 U.S. nationals currently booked on its Iran:
Discover Persia tours that U.S. passport holders with valid visas would be
allowed entry into Iran and that it had been advised that U.S. passport holders
with approval from Iran’s Foreign Ministry for their letter of invitation would
be able to submit visa applications.

However, Warner said, the company also warns that for U.S.
citizens planning to apply for an Iranian visas in the future, “approval
remains uncertain.” G Adventures is allowing Iran travelers to cancel
their Iran trip and transfer the funds to another tour without penalty.

George Morgan-Grenville, founder and CEO of upscale travel
company Red Savannah, which just launched a series of escorted tours for 2017
that includes a 10-day Iran in the Footsteps of the Persian Empire itinerary,
said, “At this stage, we’re certainly not panicking about it.”

If Americans are eventually told they can’t come, he said,
Red Savannah will refund any deposits or payments.

Intrepid Travel, which has been running Iran tours since
2012, said the country has been the company’s fastest-growing destination in
the Middle East, with 35% growth among North American travelers last year. Thus
far, Intrepid has not had any Iran cancellations and said U.S. travel to Iran
is “business as usual for now.”

At least one tour operator in Iran that works with U.S.
travelers said there had been no cancellations thus far, attributing that to
the type of Americans who tend to go to Iran.

“The American … tourists are more hard-core cultural
tourists,” said Pari Ahmadi with the Iran Traveling Center. “They
seem to have weathered a lot of situations like this in the past and seem to be
unfazed and to take it in stride.”

However, Ahmadi said things could change.

“We are in a period of complete uncertainty, to say the
least,” Ahmadi said.

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