The high drama of last week’s missile strike on Syria temporarily takes the focus away from US president Donald Trump’s more insidious manoeuvre. Stealthily but surely, Mr Trump has been proceeding with his campaign promise to wall off America. He has not managed to start on the “big, beautiful” wall he envisages for America’s southern border with Mexico. But make no mistake, he has thrown up an invisible barrier between the United States and much of the world.
In just three months, Mr Trump has turned the US from a shiny, exciting destination of choice for tourists, highly skilled workers, college students and conference delegates, into a dark and forbidding place. Last month, Mr Trump’s secretary of state Rex Tillerson issued four separate memos to US embassies and consulates worldwide, urging them to identify “populations warranting increased scrutiny” among visa applicants. No definition was provided of the suspicious population sets. But, the Trump administration’s attempts to impose travel bans on mainly Muslim countries and to make it generally harder to travel in comfort from the Middle East and North Africa, suggests US consular officials will be encouraged to profile people on the basis of religion and country of origin. Certainly, this form of “extreme vetting” would make a US visa extremely difficult to procure.
Perhaps it’s just as well that anecdotally fewer people now want to travel to the US to visit, work, study or present papers at seminars. According to the Global Business Travel Association, Mr Trump has cost the US travel industry $185 million (Dh675m) in lost revenue since his election. In late February, an internet travel search engine reported a 58 per cent decline in queries about flights from Britain to Tampa and Orlando. This is significant because Orlando, home to Disney World, is immensely popular with British holidaymakers and is usually high on the list of top 10 global destinations. The travel search engine also reported a 52 per cent decline in searches for Miami, 43 per cent for San Diego, 36 per cent for Las Vegas and 32 per cent for Los Angeles. Hotel prices were down by one-third in New York. The search engine’s findings confirmed those from another flight app, which said that US-bound flight searches had dropped 17 per cent since Mr Trump’s January 20 inauguration.
The so-called “Trump Slump” is also affecting college applications from foreign students. After years of high demand from overseas students, who pay full sticker price for tuition compared with Americans, Autumn 2017 application numbers are dropping. According to the American Association of College Registrars and Admissions Officers, four of 10 US colleges reported a decline, particularly in undergraduate applications from the Middle East.
Based on the responses it received from more than 250 US institutions, the association noted that 39 and 31 per cent reported declines in undergraduate and graduate applications respectively from the Middle East. The context of this, it said, was rising “concern that the political discourse surrounding foreign nationals in the US leading up to the 2016 US presidential election could be damaging to international student recruitment efforts”.
All this indicates trepidation among foreigners that the US and its immigrant-bashing “America First” president would rather they stay away.
Even the niche business of US passport-procurement by the extremely wealthy is affected. Late last month, US law firm partner Reaz Jafri admitted to Forbes magazine that US citizenship is becoming less attractive because “coming to America has become a more difficult process and some of my clients are not as excited as before”.
Add to this a series of high-profile cases of detention and near-deportation by US immigration authorities. It happened to the prominent Egypt-born French historian Henry Rousso en route to a symposium in Texas. And to the Australian bestselling children’s author Mem Fox as she flew into Los Angeles on her way to a conference in Milwaukee.
The rash of bad publicity from such incidents would be the stuff of nightmares for tourism promotion boards anywhere. But especially perhaps for the US, which has benefited enormously from its worldwide image as a welcoming country full of happy high-fiving locals. To have Ms Fox, 70, admit her interaction with US agents reduced her to sobbing “like a baby” and that she “couldn’t imagine” ever returning to America is hugely negative.
Roger Dow of the US Travel Association implored Mr Trump to “tell the world that while we’re closed to terror, we’re open for business. Unbalanced communication is especially susceptible to being ‘lost in translation’.”
But there is little sign that the Trump administration is listening. April 4 marked the end of the bidding contest to build a prototype for Mr Trump’s “beautiful” wall. The requirements probably say a lot about Trump’s idea of America. “The north side of the wall [ie the US facing side] shall be aesthetically pleasing in colour.” In other words, only Americans need to find it pretty.