PHOTO: Havana, Cuba. (Photo by David Cogswell)
While world markets reeled at the now inevitability of a Trump administration taking over the U.S. government, for tour operators Nov. 9 seemed to be just another business day.
Tour operators, like most business people, must try to maintain political neutrality. No business wants to risk alienating approximately half of the population by offending the political sensibilities of its prospective customers. So getting a tour operator to talk on the record about such a thing as an election is like pulling teeth.
Furthermore, major events are part of the tour operator’s daily routines. Tour operators are used to dealing with real emergencies of all kinds. An election is hardly an emergency. It is a long-anticipated event with plenty of time to plan for the possible contingencies.
But many of Trump’s stated policies would directly impinge on the travel industry, such as his promise to build a wall on the Mexican border, his statement in September that he would reverse Obama’s actions on opening travel to Cuba, and his vow to tear up the nuclear agreement with Iran.
Tour operators who do business in these respective countries must pay close attention to such policy statements in order to prepare the most effective strategies for dealing with the policies if they are put in place. But what they think about it all remains mostly private and off the record.
A few of the tour operators contacted by TravelPulse did share some thoughts both on and off the record.
“It’s much too early to see or feel the true impact of this election,” said Vanessa Parrish, channel marketing manager for the Globus family of brands. “With the election resolved, however, we are optimistic that both our economy and people’s desire to travel internationally will remain strong.”
For tour operators the essential fact of election day is that it puts an end to the election season, because the uncertainty of a presidential election creates anxiety that dampens demand for travel.
Having the election over is the best news for tour operators, regardless of who wins. And being spared the drawn-out uncertainty of a contested election is also a great relief.
“In terms of our industry, the outcome has less to do with who won, and more to do with a quick finish, which is what we had,” said Ashish Sanghrajka, president of Big Five Tours and Expeditions. “If we look back at the 2000 election, the long wait while the votes were recounted and the Supreme Court rendered judgment had more effect on our industry and economy than the election itself.”
Big Five Tours does not operate in Cuba or Mexico, but given Trump’s statements on his proposed policies in those countries, Sanghrajka said, “If I were operating in those countries I would be keeping a close watch on those issues.”
The comparisons with last summer’s Brexit election were inescapable.
“This is a seismic event,” said James Phillips, president of TravelBound. “It reflects an increasing international movement to turn away from the establishment. For a significant proportion of the population, it reflects a pursuit of ‘change’. But by definition it has a polarizing effect, meaning that those not in favor or seeking a different version of change view the world through a very different lens.
“This goes beyond two party politics and reflects something deeper – a rejection of the status quo for something less clear but somehow highly compelling for those seeking that change. It feels less about policy, and more about an attitude. On a social level we need to understand what lies behind the polarization, because regardless of personal belief there is clearly something going on that has confounded expectations. Brexit was a symptom of similar sentiment but this is something far bigger.”
It is impossible to avoid concern over a sense that America is turning in on itself and taking a more isolationist stand toward the rest of the world.
“As a travel company, we support policies that engender a culture where travel is seen as an opportunity to enrich lives through education, understanding, knowledge and shared experience,” said Phillips. “This requires trust and a sense of shared-purpose with our international partners. It is hard to predict what the election result means in real terms, but if America chooses to look inwards now, to become more nationalistic or isolationist, or to limit freedom of movement, labor and goods, then we will have to assess the impact.
“We are also an incredibly diverse team and we celebrate that diversity. Some of the rhetoric during the election has not been sensitive in this respect. America is an inspirational country and we will come together to navigate these uncertain times.”
But in spite of the divisiveness and sometimes incendiary statements during the election, there is a feeling that business concerns will trump (pardon the pun) any policies that would be disruptive of the international business climate.
“Donald Trump is, above all, a businessman,” said John Stachnik, president of Mayflower Tours. “With his family’s investment in tourism and its infrastructure I can envision him keeping hospitality industry needs in the forefront. He will need to walk a tight line so that potential conflicts are at a minimum, yet it appears he has done this in his campaign, and knows how to do this successfully. There will be disputes with different countries (Mexico, for example) but in the long run both sides will benefit greatly tourism-wise from a back-and-forth dialogue. This will play a part in his dealings with Obama’s Cuban initiative. Since the Hispanic vote did not disrupt the outcome of his campaign, I doubt if President-elect Trump will erode Cuban tourism to keep that particular faction appeased. All in all, we need to give someone from the ‘for profit’ side of life a chance.”
In a business so greatly affected by the ripples of all kinds of world events, a tour operator cannot look very far into the future with certainty.
“For our business and industry to thrive, we require peace and prosperity above all else,” said Bob Drumm, president of Alexander + Roberts. “I’m optimistic that this is understood by those who will have influence over our country in the coming years. Business has turned up in October, weeks in advance of the election. We don’t expect that to change now that the election has passed.”
Off the record, however, tour operators were willing to share some concerns, some indicating that they had been making phone calls to overseas partners to assure them that the isolationist tendency they are observing on the news reports does not represent all Americans, and many of them still want to travel internationally as much as ever.