A troubling sign has emerged that President Donald Trump’s policies may reduce visits to the United States by foreigners — a significant segment of Route 66 tourism.
Hopper, a mobile application that analyzes billions of pieces of airfare data around the globe daily reports flight-search demand from international countries has fallen 17 percent overall since Trump’s inauguration and his seven-nation travel ban.
The full report by Patrick Surry, chief data scientist at Hopper, is here. A few other bits of information from Hopper:
- Flight-search demand to the U.S. has dropped in 94 of 122 countries where Hopper has gathered significant data.
- International demand has declined for all major U.S. destinations. San Francisco and Las Vegas have seen the biggest drops.
- “Last year, we saw only a 1.8 percent decline for the comparable time period, which suggests the change is not a simple seasonal effect,” Surry wrote.
- An exception is Russia; flight-search demand to the U.S. from there has risen 88 percent.
In summary, Surry wrote:
“Unlike almost every other travel-related incident we’ve studied where short-term demand rises as people rush to confirm, change or cancel planned travel, Trump’s Executive Order have led to a significant drop in interest in traveling to the US. While some would argue that a reduction in foreign visitors is a positive outcome, it’s clear that the vast majority of these potential travelers are simply business people, tourists, family members, students and the like. If travel restrictions are reinstated it may send the message that visitors are no longer welcome in America and we could be seeing the start of a significant downturn for the travel & tourism industry.”
In a separate document, Surry provided a breakdown of the recent effect by country. Here are results from many nations that bring a significant number of Route 66 tourists:
- China, down 33 percent
- Ireland, down 32 percent
- Denmark, down 31 percent
- New Zealand, down 31 percent
- Australia, down 25 percent
- Sweden, down 22 percent
- Germany, down 20 percent
- Austria, down 16 percent
- Brazil, down 16 percent
- Norway, down 14 percent
- Finland, down 13 percent
- Belgium, down 9 percent
- United Kingdom, down 9 percent
- France, down 8 percent
- Netherlands, down 6 percent
- Czech Republic, down 5 percent
- Switzerland, down 5 percent
- Canada, down 4 percent
- Italy, no change
- Israel, no change
- Japan, up 7 percent
- Spain, up 9 percent
With destination cities, Chicago and Los Angeles — the spots where Route 66 trips mostly likely would begin — international searches are down 19 percent and 22 percent, respectively.
I’m inclined to take this report more seriously than anecdotes or polling data. Hopper measures billions of pieces of consumer-behavior data on the internet in real time. Its data are not subject to how a question is worded.
And having worked in the internet retail sector for a several years, you ignore such consumer data at your peril.
According to the Route 66 Economic Impact Report from 2011, at least 15 percent of Route 66 travelers are foreign, although its authors noted this figure is very conservative, mainly because many foreign tourists on Route 66 didn’t fill out the English-only survey. Many Route 66 businesses have reported one-quarter to nearly one-half of its visitors are international.
U.S. tourism officials have fretted for weeks about possible fallout from a Trump administration, which takes a harder line on immigration and foreign trade. The Hill and Fox Business News are among several media outlets that have reported about a possible effect.
Though Hopper’s data may signal a foreign-visitor downtown to the U.S., I feel compelled to add a few caveats specific to Route 66:
— Motivation. Those who travel Route 66 really want to travel it. Such travelers spend a lot of time preparing for their journey and will do it, damn the torpedoes. In many minds, Route 66 is the quintessential American experience, and it’s no coincidence it shows up on many so-called “bucket lists.” It stands to reason a higher percentage of people thinking about a Route 66 journey will follow through.
— Demographic differences. Hopper measures global searches from everyone. Route 66 travelers tend to be older, more educated and wealthier than a typical traveler. Whether Route 66 travelers’ behavior matches global travelers’ behavior remains unknown.
— Longer-term effects. The Donald Trump administration is only a few weeks into its presidency. We have no idea whether he’ll soften some travel policies or settle into a role as a more pedestrian U.S. president. If any of these things occur, foreign interest in U.S. travel may rebound.
In the meantime, evidence shows interest in foreign travel to the U.S. has declined — just a few weeks before Route 66 tourism season begins. A decline on Route 66 itself may not materialize. But Route 66 businesses should take steps to prepare if it does.