by Barbara Peterson | March 01, 2017

The U.K. votes to leave the European Union. A refugee crisis causes some European nations to tighten borders. The U.S. presidential election stirs tough talk on immigration and a promise to build a wall on the U.S./Mexican border.

The word xenophobia, usually defined as a fear of foreigners, is not typically a hot topic in the travel industry. But the events of the past year and a half, starting with terror attacks in France and, recently, the new Trump administration's swift action to ban travel temporarily from seven predominantly Muslim nations, is engendering an unease for those in the meetings and hospitality business, as a rise in protectionism around the globe that could make it more difficult for attendees to move across borders. 

While this streak of isolationism is hardly limited to one country, many leaders in the travel industry and international organizations have been particularly vocal about its impact on their stateside business, if, as Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson, pictured here, put it, the U.S. could be seen as erecting the equivalent of a giant "keep out" sign. 

Addressing a New York University Tisch School of Hospitality conference last year, Sorenson warned of a "rise in nationalism" that, he said, "threatens the ability for people to move freely around the world." And he drew much attention with an open letter to Donald Trump in November, when he urged the new president-elect to "keep the welcome mat out for foreign travelers," a sentiment he has repeated often since then, including at the annual gathering of financial leaders in Davos, Switzerland, this past January. 

"Of concern to us would be questions around immigration and trade, and whether those get communicated in a way that translates into 'You're not welcome to come into the United States,' " Sorenson said in his open letter, adding that there are "similar trends in Europe," notably the Brexit vote, which was largely viewed as the result of a rise in anti-immigration sentiment.

The United Nations weighed in, too, with a strong condemnation as it observed International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27 -- the same day President Trump signed the executive order announcing the travel ban. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guter­res noted that the agency was seeing "a deeply troubling rise in extremism, xenophobia, racism and anti-Muslim hatred" in addition to antisemitism, and called it "intolerable."

But many travel industry leaders have a different take, and some clearly believe that while xenophobia is troubling, strengthening national safety and security is a top priority. Roger Dow, head of the U.S. Travel Association, carefully voiced support of the new administration's efforts to step up vetting of applicants for U.S. visas, noting that "without security, there can be no travel." But, he also stressed the importance of carrying this out in way that doesn't unnecessarily impede travel.

Indeed, U.S. Travel has consistently lobbied in support of expedited treatment for foreign visitors who enter the country via visa waiver or a trusted-traveler program, given that inbound travel supports about two million jobs and is dependent on the flow of some 75 million foreign visitors to the U.S. annually, according to the association.

"It is imperative that we find the right balance between security and facilitation," Dow said following the executive order imposing a temporary ban on arrivals from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen in order to reset the vetting process. (At press time, it was reported the Trump administration was considering reintroducing the order in a modified form to address some constitutional concerns and perhaps leaving Iraq off the list.) Dow also urged the administration to "conduct this review quickly" to mitigate possible long-term fallout to the industry.

Both sides weigh in
Meeting planners also are divided on how recent actions by the U.S. and U.K. could impact their business. In a survey conducted in early February by M&C following the executive order (see Research here and verbatim responses here), 30 percent of respondents said their organizations had been affected by the action, while just over half, or 54 percent, had seen no change. Of those who were affected, one-third said travelers already had been inconvenienced when trying to enter the U.S., and 72 percent were concerned that the order would threaten attendance at future events. 

Whatever the ultimate fate of the travel ban, some feel that considerable damage already has been done. David Scowsill, president and CEO of the World Travel & Tourism Council, said in an address to an aviation conference on Feb. 14, "The United States is in danger of taking the same path it took after the 9/11 terror attacks, which led to a decade of economic stagnation in the travel and tourism sector." (For more, see the M&C news item, "Closing Borders Risks Jobs, World Travel & Tourism Council Warns Trump Administration.")
Many meeting professionals polled by M&C expressed similar fears. "Uncertainty has been created, which is never good with long-range meeting planning for associations," said one respondent. Another noted, "Travelers from other countries who are afraid to get stuck or be refused entry [could] choose not to attend our conference."

Feedback ranged widely from criticism that the executive order is "not what this country is about" to praise for it, such as: "My clients believe they are now safer coming here."

In the latter camp is Carole Lynn Steiner, a New York City-based consultant and planner, who told M&C she strongly supports the actions of President Trump and does not see any downside for the industry. "What's most important is keeping our country safe, and that means keeping immigration legal," she wrote, adding that the only change she will personally make will be to hold overseas meetings in countries "that prove their loyalty to the U.S."

Meanwhile, nearby destinations like the Bahamas or Canada could seize the opportunity to woo international meetings if the U.S.'s image is tarnished by recent events. One planner recalled seeing a social media thread originating in Canada urging associations to consider cities like Toronto and Montreal as substitutes for New York or Atlanta. On the other hand, some planners could choose to stay closer to home, lest there's a backlash against U.S. companies or organizations abroad.

Asked whether the current political climate would influence site selection in the future, respondents to M&C's survey were about evenly divided, with 51 percent saying no and 49 percent answering in the affirmative. About one-third said they would hold more meetings in the U.S., with just 8 percent saying they would meet more often outside the States.

Politicizing site selection could be a dangerous trend, however, according to some respondents: While a few of those polled say it's inevitable, and that factors like security threats are always taken into account, others worry about the message this would send. In particular, in the fields of education, science and medicine, conferences are critical forums for sharing ideas and research, and anything that would interrupt the free flow of ideas would be a setback. "Generally, the quality of the audiences will decline because fewer diverse views will be present," warned one planner.