America First? Not for foreign tourists

America and Turkey have something in common: They're the only two countries to suffer from a decline in long-haul travel since 2015. 

Top tourism destinations such as the U.K., Australia and Italy have all benefited from an increase in visitors during the last two years, but America and Turkey haven't shared in the expansion, according to data from the U.S. Travel Association. 

The sharp decline in foreign visitors to the U.S. has alarmed several industries that rely on tourism, ranging from hotels to retailers. So they're banding together to create a new coalition called Visit U.S. that aims to reverse the two-year trend. President Donald Trump's policies on immigration and his "America First" platform may be turning off foreign visitors, although the U.S. Travel Association pointed out that the decline began in 2015, well before Mr. Trump won the presidential election. 

"It would be erroneous to lay that that the president's feet, but that being said, rhetoric and messaging have a part of play in this," said Jonathan Grella, the trade group's executive vice president of public affairs. "Sadly, we're in the situation where travel is growing around the world, and America is in the company of Turkey in losing share, and they aren't typically our peer."

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Visit U.S.

The decline in foreign visitors is having a significant impact on the U.S. economy, according to the Visit U.S. coalition. Global travel increased 7.9 percent from 2015 to 2017, while the American share of that market declined from 13.6 percent to 11.9 percent. 

If the U.S. had maintained its market share from 2015, America would have added $32.2 billion in additional spending and created 100,000 additional jobs, the group said. 

If the Trump administration's rhetoric isn't the only thing causing tourists to look outside of U.S. borders for vacation destinations, what else could be causing the problem? For one, the strong dollar, which makes the U.S. a less appetizing -- and pricier -- vacation spot for foreign travelers. 

America's aging infrastructure and the rise of low-cost airlines in Europe may also be playing into the decline. The U.S. doesn't have one airport among the top 20 world airports rated by the International Airport Review. Instead, airports in Asia and Europe grab the top rankings. Plus, several U.S. airports earn low ratings from passengers for travel experience, including New York's LaGuardia and JFK airports.

"They're starved of infrastructure funding," Grella said of U.S. airports. "Europe continues to grow more connected and add more low-cost carriers and has more choice. Those things can affect demand."

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He added, "If you have the choice to go somewhere efficiently and cost efficiently, you might choose that over a less pleasant travel experience."

The Visit U.S. coalition's goal is to encourage the Trump administration and lawmakers to enact policies that are more traveler-friendly, such as expanding the visa waiver system and adding messaging that reassures foreign travelers that they're wanted in the U.S. 

That might be a tough sell, at least on the face of it. President Trump's rhetoric, such as questioning why the U.S. is accepting people from "sh*thole" countries, as well as scaling back legal protections for immigrants from several nations, may signal to foreign travelers that border policies aren't as open as they once were. 

"With each limiting security announcement, we need to offset it with a deliberate welcoming message so America can help reclaim its market share," Grella noted. "Trump is a legendary brander and understands that America's brand matters."

Still, the challenges to burnishing America's image outside its borders are very real. The Pew Research Center found that the nation's image has suffered in countries where people say their confidence in the U.S. president has declined. Favorability ratings for the U.S. declined across the globe, according to Pew, which found that this measure increased in just two countries: Russia and Vietnam.