The Decline of Tourism in the US

Anyone who’s ever traveled to the US knows that entering the country can be a tedious and humiliating task. Fence or no fence, there are many obstacles to entering the country. Even as a duel jus soli and jus sanguinis US citizen, I still have to fill out one of those ridiculous forms: No, I’m not carrying $10,000 and no, I haven’t been playing with farm animals. Then when I reach customs I have to present the form, answer questions, cringe apologetically as they fingerprint and eye-scan my European travel partner, and hope they don’t randomly search my bags for powders, creams and loose radio parts. Though, because I’m whiter than the blonds Fox News throws up to reassure their viewers that while they may be listening to slovenliness they sure as hell aren’t watching it, I generally don’t get pulled aside.

It should come as no surprise then that the US’s share of the global tourist market has been falling in recent years. Perhaps many Americans don’t care too much. On a micro-level most people probably don’t like tourists – they putter along and stop in awkward places forcing you to contort yourself around them (i.e., they have no feel, as they shouldn’t really, for a foreign place’s rhythm). And they transform the coolest parts of a place to, well, the uncoolest. On a macro-level though, most people probably would agree that tourism is beneficial. Tourists spend money, demand services and thus create jobs. These are all things that help economies grow.

In light of the ongoing Great Recession, the fact that the US has become a less popular destination country for tourists should worry people. Sure other industries could make up for this loss, but the thing about recessions is that during them most industries don’t grow. But because tourism to the US has been in decline since long before the recession started, its cause is not recession-related. A more likely explanation is that tourism has been constrained both internally (post-9/11 legislation has made applying to enter and actually entering the country more difficult) and externally (navigating Europe has become logistically easier and emerging markets have become more attractive places to visit). If the main cause is external then there’s no good reason to think the US will take back too many of these lost visitors. If, however, the main cause is internal, then the US could just simplify its tourist-visa requirements and start re-stacking lost tourist dollars. International travel creates enough anxiety on its own, and it’s possible that with all the walls the US has built between itself and those with other passports, potential visitors are now more inclined to say, fuck it, I’m going to Prague. Or Thailand or whatever.

Speaking of Prague

In Prague, Old-Town Square and the Charles Bridge epitomize tourist-infused nightmares. Not only is everything much more expensive around these parts, but everywhere you walk, you’re dodging someone in the middle of taking a picture. In Warsaw, because no one visits Warsaw, the old-town is actually a really great place to hang out. It’s quiet and charming in the way that we Americans grow up thinking European cities ought to be. I’m speaking of the old-town now, not the rest of the city.

Of course the downside to Warsaw is that because no one visits it, there isn’t much incentive for city planners to power-wash buildings and make everything tourist friendly. In Prague the reverse is true: the city is beautiful and there are all kinds of busy restaurants, music clubs and other revenue creating places. And the thing is, a correlate to Warsaw lacking demand for tourist-related services is that it lacks other, more important services too, like roads and a comprehensive metro system. There’s more to a city than tourist-packed nightclubs, pothole-less roads and multiple metro lines, but these things do matter. Besides creating jobs and revenue, they also increase labor productivity. That’s why it seems to me that from almost any perspective, that of an economist, a city planner, an artist or a gyros maker, attracting as much tourism as possible is the right policy. And one of the ways to do that is to lower the barriers for obtaining a tourist visa.

In many ways, tourism can be seen as part of a country’s stance toward immigration. In the US, for example, visa restrictions are to a large degree the result of American policymakers thinking that tourism is just a way for a mobile person to conceal a desire to immigrate. In my view, most, if not all, restrictive tourism and immigration policies are morally regressive and economically unsound. I don’t have time to make the moral argument, but it goes something like this: stop withholding and be hospitable.

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