Thursday, 27 April 2017

USA: Trump Versus German Tourists

Route 66, New York, San Francisco: for years, the US has been the most popular tourist destination among Germans. But has that popularity lessened since Donald Trump became president? We gauge the mood.

"What does the US have in its favor? "Nature, history, the sun, the friendly people," enthuse two women in their mid-forties. They have just arrived at Berlin's Tegel Airport in a plane from Miami, both wearing shorts, and sporting suntans. They were in the Everglades in Florida. Their only criticism: "Florida in particular is too expensive."

A family with a baggage trolley loaded with large suitcases pushes past them. Tired out after the ten-hour flight from Miami, they have just enough energy for the son to give us a casual thumbs-up. Then his father turns back and says, beaming, "We'll definitely go there again."

Is Trump scaring tourists off?

Ever since Donald Trump was elected US President, experts have feared that many potential visitors from abroad would stay away. In March, Fred Dixon, President of New York City’s official tourism organization, said that Trump's harsh rhetoric and planned travel bans, although thwarted by the US judicial system, had tarnished the image of the US as a hospitable country.

German vacationers, however, appear to be unfazed. Berlin teacher Christiane Schraback is one of them. For 14 years she has organized school exchanges with the state of Missouri during the Easter holidays.

She knows many people in the US and Germany who view Trump critically, but says resolutely, “I will continue the school exchanges anyway.”

What annoys the teacher most is ESTA, the automated procedure that determines whether foreign nationals can travel to the United States without a visa. The students are eligible, but she says the procedure "is constantly being tightened, and not just since Trump has been president.

There are more and more questions about parents, about employers, and now about profiles on social networks. If Europe did that with US citizens, the outcry would be enormous.”

This year, their arrival at the airport in Chicago went well. Caroline, a student, said, “All they asked me was why I wanted to enter the country.” Christiane Schraback confirms that "US immigration officers have become friendlier in the past two years."

More short-notice bookings

Among travel agents, too, the ESTA procedure is much-discussed topic. Nadia Hönow, who owns the Berlin travel agencyReisen à la carte GmbH, reports that many of her customers ask her to help them fill out the forms, a service she is glad to offer. "We've already sold a lot of trips to the US this year.

To date, I have heard no negative comments from my customers. Instead, they've been positive." But she adds that many customers are more hesitant at first and don't jump at the idea of a US vacation. She has also observed another tendency: "Our customers are booking at shorter notice."

Uncertainty and hard numbers

So far, there has been no sharp drop in German travel. Trump's planned ban for travelers from six mainly Muslim countries was blocked by the courts, and the laptop ban applies only to direct flights to the United States from eight airports in the Middle East. To all intents and purposes, these restrictions don't apply to Germans.

Nonetheless, since Trump took office, they have become sceptical of trips to the US, as the market research organization GfK discovered. In January 9% fewer Germans with a general interest in going to the US planned to holiday there.

The organization said it surveyed 19,000 selected households. GfK spokeswoman Dörte Nordbeck confirmed that the survey results for February and March showed no reversal of that trend.

Tilo Krause-Duenow, founder of Canusa, a long-established tour operator in Hamburg that specializes in North American travel destinations, cannot confirm that tendency when it comes to his company.

He says that, since Trump's election in November, there have been stronger and weaker weeks as far as bookings and inquiries are concerned, but that at the end of each month there has consistently been a single-figure rate of growth between 5 and 9% compared to the same period last year. Currently, he says, demand is even increasing.

Krause-Duenow is sure that "more than 50% of our customers are repeat travelers to the US. They don't get let politics bother them very much."

The strong dollar isn't the whole explanation

The experiences of German tour operators have differed in the first quarterly period. When DW asked five operators, the spectrum ranged from a good plus in bookings, to stable numbers, to a reluctance to buy.

Peter Dorner's office is in New York City and he keeps a sharp eye on developments on the ground. He conducts operations for the travel group DER Touristik in the US. "Demand from Europe, and in particular from Germany, has dropped slightly.

One reason for that is certainly the strong dollar. But the discussions surrounding the presidential election aren't exactly good prerequisites for additional US business."

Should the euro strengthen, planes flying to the US would be full again, says Dorner, because "for Europeans, there are no effects once they arrive. The USA is still a very safe travel destination."

Travel offers more diverse than ever before

US national parks are especially popular with Germans. "German tourists want getaways, secluded locations, and adventure holidays," according to a spokeswoman from the official tourist organization BrandUSA, which is creating more offers tailored to German tourists in its current campaign.

Leading German tourism groups such as TUI and Thomas Cook Germany have expanded their US portfolios for 2017. Every year, two million Germans holiday in the United States, the sixth-largest number of international visitors according to country. Shopping in New York, surfing in Florida, driving through California in a recreational vehicle.

New to the range are cruises from Florida to the Caribbean and from New York City to Canada. Despite the subdued beginning to the year, the signs are good that, in 2017, the US might remain Germans' favorite travel destination - despite Donald Trump.