If you’re under 30, you may not remember that there was a time when travel was hard. A huge part of the world was shut off from the West. It was only 30 years ago that the IRA was still active across the United Kingdom, and you’d likely be followed by spies in Warsaw. Then most of the world opened up, ushering in an unprecedented era of international travel.
Next came a tidal wave of technology. The movement of information was able to show us the world in an instant. We were able to take travel into our own hands for the first time and book airline tickets or rent an apartment all on our laptops (and eventually our phones). The idea of having a government escort in places like Vietnam or Hungary seemed like a relic from a different dimension, not just a few decades back.
Now, in 2017, the relative liberty of the past years seems to be on the decline. We now have travel bans that look like they are specifically targeting Muslims. The U.S. travel economy is reeling. International trade agreements that brought stability and prosperity are being torn asunder for reasons that remain muddied at best. And there’s a demigod dictator in Russia who looks more and more like he just wants to watch the world burn as he reportedly manipulates elections from U.K. to Germany to the United States.
How did we get so far from the carefree, wanderlusting days of just five years ago? And is there any way to stop the tide of isolationism?
FEAR IS SPREADING
On March 6th, Israel voted to ban anyone involved with boycotting Israeli products from entering their country. And while this is, on the surface, directed at Palestinians who want to travel and live in Israel, it could easily be applied to anyone incoming. All it takes is a quick search of a social media feed for evidence of support of an Israeli Boycott. There’s nothing in the bill passed that would stop Israel denying entry to anyone who has supported Palestinian causes related to a boycott of Israeli goods, for instance.
Israel isn’t starting a new trend here. Searching social media is the becoming the new luggage search at border crossings. America already searches people’s social media accounts and contact lists on entry — albeit, not everyone’s. Right now, the European Union is prepping to install a system to scan U.K. citizens entering the continent that will provide a window to search social media backgrounds before anyone even gets on a plane or ferry. The system that the E.U. is considering for U.K. citizens entering the Eurozone after Brexit is almost identical to the United States’ ESTA early screening scheme. This “pre-screening” process allows the state a little time to browse your social media threads and decide whether or not you’re welcome in their country.
It goes well beyond ESTA screenings. It seems the U.S. started demanding that anyone entering the country will have to unlock their phones just like we used to have to unlock our suitcases. In an anonymous leak from the US government to CNN it was revealed that “in future if visitors refuse to hand over their account details and contacts, they could be refused entry.” You have to assume that if the U.S. is going this far, other countries will as well.
Is this more fear of terror or immigration or a sign of a bigger trend? Canadians who traveled to the U.S. in January were forced to unlock their phones at the border and hand them over for inspection. If we’re doing this to our closest and dearest ally, what chance do our perceived enemies have of visiting and spending some cash (and perhaps breaking down prejudices)?
Again, this is already happening. The pell-mell, willy-nilly freedoms we’ve enjoyed for nearly a generation seems to be rapidly coming to an end. We have to ask ourselves if we want to be a country where someone’s politics disallows them entry into our country.
THE BREXIT FALLOUT
A lot of what is happening with Brexit will have little effect on Americans traveling to Europe in the short term. The United Kingdom had already opted out of the Schengen Agreements and maintained a border crossing between the E.U. and the U.K. So, as an American bouncing around Europe, traveling between the U.K. and any E.U. country meant you’d have to pass through a check anyway.
The unspoken benefit of Brexit for Americans has been the beating the British Pound has taken since June 24th. Travelers from the U.S. and E.U. (and most everywhere else for that matter) can currently enjoy the wonders of the U.K. at a heavily discounted rate — which has led to an uptick in tourism numbers over the last nine months. (It’s important to remember that everything is still in place until Article 50 is triggered and Brexit begins in earnest)
The real problems that exist and will affect how we travel are a lot more complicated than just a currency exchange. It’s about borders. Nationalist sentiment has ascended quickly in Scotland and Ireland in the wake of Brexit. This is crucial, because Ireland and the U.K. are dependent on an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. This is accordance with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 that ended 25 years of civil war called The Troubles — meaning that it’s still recent and raw. The last major bombings of British cities was in 1996 when the IRA bombed London’s Docklands, killing two and central Manchester injuring 200. That was only 21 years ago.
Why is this important? Well, Northern Ireland is re-radicalizing fast. They in no way want to be out of the E.U. and have already sought automatic re-entry back into the E.U. should they leave the UK behind. Two, Ireland has been colonized by the English for about 500 years — they don’t want a Britain not beholden to E.U. laws.
As for Scotland, they’re massively reliant on their whisky, oil, beef, and tourism. They are able to do thrive more easily (and make bigger profits) in the E.U. and thereby voted to stay.
Just last week, acting Prime Minister Theresa May took a hard stance on any illusions the Scottish had of sovereignty by stating, “We all know that the SNP will never stop twisting the truth and distorting reality in their effort to denigrate our United Kingdom and further their obsession of independence.” May continued, “A tunnel vision nationalism, which focuses only on independence at any cost, sells Scotland short.”
How long will it be before entry into whatever is left of the U.K. is denied because someone fired off a pro Irish or Scottish tweet?
TRAVEL IN TRUMP’S AMERICA
The Travel Ban. That’s a real phrase that’s being used now. Is that ever a good thing? The tide is starting to turn against us. Our fears of the outside world are being eclipsed by the outside world’s fear of us. Increasingly, America is viewed as an extremely dangerous place with unchecked gun violence and wanton assaults on people who don’t fit into straight, white norms.
Countries have started issuing travel warnings for certain U.S. states where individual human rights are being stomped upon. These warnings also highlight America’s gun problems and caution citizens from traveling to parts of the country where gun violence is a real danger to civilian life. All of this, coupled with the image that the Trump Administration is presenting to the world, and U.S. travel is starting to take a major hit.
There’s often a travel slowdown in the United States during an election year, but this one is more severe. It should be highlighted and bolded that tourism is one of the biggest industries that the United States has — surpassing our export of both oil and cars combined.
Just a one percent decrease in annual travel to the U.S. equals a loss of $5 billion in GDP. In the week after Trump’s executive order, we saw a 3.4 percent drop in travel bookings, and it’s trending worse in the future.
On March 6, New York City announced that it expects a 2.1 percent decrease in tourism, the first drop in numbers since 2008 (an election cycle year). This downturn equates to 300,000 less people visiting New York City and spending money in bars, restaurants, tours, AirBnbs, hotels, and so on.
According to a February 28 Guardian report, there has been an 17 percent average decrease in all international flight searches coming into the U.S. This has been more severe in Muslim-majority countries. Flight searches to the U.S. from Saudi Arabia and Bahrain were down 33 and 37 percent, respectively. Booking from the banned countries fell by 80 percent.
Peter Greenberg, the legendary travel correspondent, put it this way in a recent speech: “Then came November 9th, when we woke up and found out that Donald Trump had been elected president. That created even more global uncertainty and that lasted until January 27th when it got worse.” Greenberg continues with some staggering numbers: “Within 48 hours of that executive order, U.S. airlines lost $4.9 billion in market value. Global bookings and global searches dropped 17 percent and global booking dropped 6.5 percent.” Airline stocks are still falling.
Searches lead to bookings and, therefore, money spent in the U.S. economy, which pays people’s salaries. That 6.5 percent drop is real. There is one sector of travel to the U.S. that has skyrocketed, however. Can you guess where it’s from? Russia. Flight searches from Russia to the U.S. are up 88 percent.
This pummeling the U.S. travel sector is taking has led to the industry labeling the whole affair the Trump Slump. Conversely, other countries and air carriers are striking while the iron is hot. Kayak found that airfares to places like Mexico and Singapore have been heavily discounted since the Trump Slump began. Flights to Mexico are down as much as 40 percent right now. Clearly, countries and companies are trying to capitalize on the world’s reluctance to come to America.
What does all of this mean right now? It might be time to get out there and see the world before your Twitter or Facebook leave you stranded at customs. Or tit-for-tat bans leave you out in the cold. It means that travel is threatened but still crucial. Perhaps more crucial than it was before.
Above all, it means that we need the empathy that travel is proven to create, now more than ever.