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MARCH 2017

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Trump travel backlash

U.S. president Trump’s on-again, off-again travel ban on citizens from six Arab nations is having an impact on air travelers well beyond the Middle East.

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March 1st 2017

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U.S. president, Donald Trump’s executive order that banned travelers from six Arab nations from entering the U.S. may be blocked by the country’s top courts, but the aborted ruling is impacting on the number of tourists to the U.S., including those from one of its fastest growing sources of visitors – the Asia-Pacific. Read More »

A study of 300 million online air travel searches found flight inquiries about journeys to the U.S. from international destinations dropped 17% in the week after Trump signed the order. The January 27.decision banned travel from Syria, Iran, Libya, Sudan, Yemen and Somalia. The study, by the market research firm Hopper, compared numbers from the final two weeks of the Obama administration with the first two weeks of the Trump administration. Flight searches fell off in 94 out of 122 countries.

Separate data from travel data company, ForwardKeys, revealed flight bookings to the U.S. dropped 6.5% year-over-year in the week after the travel ban was going to be put in place. Bookings from the seven countries listed in the Trump order were down 80%.

Airline bookings to the U.S. from the Asia-Pacific had an immediate decline of 14%. Critically, the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA), the trade group for the world’s travel managers, reported business travel bookings to the U.S. dropped 3.4% in the week after the travel ban was announced. Lost business in travel bookings was estimated at $185 million.

Executive director and chief operating officer of the GBTA, Michael W. McCormick, attributed the decline to travellers’ confusion and uncertainty about entry to the U.S. “The net effect was that business travel bookings were delayed or canceled,” he said. Travel executives, including the heads of Uber, Expedia and Airbnb, have condemned the travel ban, calling it discriminatory and bad for the travel industry.

While no specific figures were available at press time for individual Asia-Pacific airlines operating to the U.S., it is understood that the biggest decline in bookings was from countries with large Muslim populations, including Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.

The issuance of the executive order meant airlines had to scramble to put in place procedures to ensure they did not board passengers and crew with passports from the effected countries. Most big airlines have multinational staff, including cockpit and cabin crew born in the Middle East.

Anecdotally, the travel industry is reporting that many non-Muslim travelers either have cancelled trips to the U.S. or have adjusted their travel plans to avoid flying through the U.S. They want to avoid inconvenient security procedures or other travel hassles.

The impact on the U.S. travel and tourism industry could be severe. According to the U.S. Travel Association, Middle East-based travelers who passed through U.S. customs in 2103 each spent an average of $6,000, or $6.8 billion for the year. These numbers continued to grow until the Trump travel ban was issued.

The situation remains extremely fluid. The U.S. Federal Court’s blocking of the executive order, the decision upheld in February by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, has not deterred President Trump. He said a new executive order could limit immigration, an attempt to circumvent the Court of Appeals ruling.

'Anecdotally, the travel industry is reporting that many non-Muslim travelers either have cancelled trips to the U.S. or have adjusted their travel plans to avoid flying through the U.S. They want to avoid inconvenient security procedures or other travel hassles'

When he spoke at a security conference in Munich in February, the U.S. Homeland Security Secretary, John F. Kelly, said the administration is considering a new version of the executive order. “The president is contemplating releasing a tighter, more streamlined version of the first EO (Executive Order),” he said.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) did not issue an official statement on the January 27 ban. Instead, it said on its website the organization works with its 256 members to deliver safe, secure, efficient and sustainable global air transport links. “As a matter of principle, we work for the free movement of trade and people across borders,” it said.

IATA recognized states have the right and duty to protect their citizens by enforcing their borders, but where this has implications for air travel, “we work with our member airlines to help them comply with these requirements efficiently and effectively”, the website said.

Entry requirements for the U.S. were changed significantly and immediately by the Executive Order. “The EO was issued without prior co-ordination or warning, causing confusion among both airlines and travelers. It also placed additional burdens on airlines to comply with unclear requirements, to bear implementation costs and to face potential penalties for non-compliance,” said IATA.

“We ask for early clarity from the U.S. administration on the current situation. Moreover, we urge all governments to provide sufficient advance coordination of changes in entry requirements so travelers can clearly understand them and airlines can efficiently implement them.”

IATA’s stance on freedom of travel was underscored during an interview in the February edition of Orient Aviation. The association’s director general and CEO, Alexandre de Juniac, said: “Air travel liberates people to live better lives and makes our world a better place. So we are deeply concerned with the current political rhetoric. It points to a future of restricted borders and protectionism. We see it in travel bans, border walls and trade agreements being called into question. These deny the benefits of globalization—a product of our industry.

“Durable peace, prosperity or security has never been achieved through provocation, exclusion and division. The world has grown wealthier with people traveling and trading. That has helped to lift over a billion people from poverty. Aviation is proud of the role it plays in making this happen. And IATA will be forceful in the face of any challenges to this truth. Ensuring aviation’s power to connect people has never been more important,” he said.

In the Asia-Pacific, there could be a silver lining to an amended ban. Tourism Authority of Thailand governor, Yuthasak Supasom, said one of the more positive outcomes, if any, of Trump’s rulings on immigration could be a surge of Middle Eastern and Muslim travelers into Asia. Given that halal tourism is booming and makes up a big slice of the travel market, the U.S. could lose out on significant revenues, he said.

“The Middle East is a big market for us, especially in the medical tourism sector. They may choose to visit Thailand more and this may also boost our sector,” he said. A little more than two percent of Thailand’s tourists were from the Middle East last year, but the nation expected an eight percent rise in Gulf visitors in the first quarter of 2017 compared with the same months a year ago.

Trump’s Gulf friend
Qatar Airways chief executive, Akbar Al Baker, speaking in New Zealand after the airline launched one of the world’s longest flights - from Doha to Auckland, expected President Trump to eventually relax his travel bans.
Trump’s business talent would prevail when it came to trade between the U.S. and Gulf countries, he said. “We need to give him some time to see how to run a super power country. In the long run, I am sure he will realize that Gulf nations are contributing hugely to the economy of the United States,” he said.
“President Trump is trying to protect the interests of his country in the same way I am trying to protect the interests of my country and my airline.” Al Baker has previously appeared at events with Trump and last year described him as “a friend”.


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