23 JAN 2018: When 2017 took its final breath millions of people around the world said, "Good riddance." It was a tumultuous year to say the least. Mother Nature demonstrated she was in a very foul mood unleashing devastating earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, drought, floods and mudslides affecting millions of people worldwide. The hurricane style winds were also swirling around the White House all year with Donald Trump at the helm. His policies and tweets, had a direct impact on the travel industry. Will 2018 be any different?  

The Trump imposed, let's call it what it really was, a Muslim ban - created a maelstrom of negative publicity and confusion both domestically and around the world. The policy that was rejected by different US district courts, though the Supreme Court has now allowed the third version of the administration's travel ban to go into effect while legal challenges against it continue.

CUBA POLICY REVISITED

Trump reversed President Obama's Cuba policy back in the fall which now made it harder for leisure US citizen travellers to visit its sun-kissed neighbour. Canadian tour operators weren't shedding a tear as that meant their room allotments and competitive pricing would be back in play without having to battle it out with US operators. Groups and cruise ship passengers from the US can still visit Cuba if certain conditions are met but the influx that was feared won't happen immediately.

FIERY LAPTOPS

The Administration implemented a laptop ban in airplane cabins last spring for flights flying to the US from a select number of Middle Eastern and African countries. It was a policy that wasn't thought through properly and had political undertones. There was push back from business and leisure travellers who frequently use flights to work, and feared putting their laptop into checked baggage.

We all know checked baggage goes missing, gets stolen or damaged. Yes, it's only a small percentage but the fact remains if you have confidential corporate and health information or sensitive documents and photos you want your laptop close at hand.

Fortunately foreign governments, airlines, IATA and other powerful travel and business organizations demonstrated that storing laptops with checked baggage can create a potentially dangerous situation where batteries can ignite and create fires. So much for keeping passengers safe! Thankfully reason and intelligence won out and the laptop policy is no longer in effect.

MOBILE PRIVACY

Last week Kirstjen Nielsen, the US Secretary of Homeland Security, appeared before a US Senate hearing to explain the new policy to legislators which would allow customs agents to examine travellers' mobile phones at the border.

As reported in TravelindustryToday.com last Friday, US border agents inspected 30,200 phones and other devices in 2017 - a massive 60 percent increase from 2016. Yes, it's only a small percentage of overall travellers but that is probably due to a shortage of staff.

Is going through your phone legal? Unfortunately yes, there are some restrictions, but the border agents hold all the power. Refusing to hand over your phone could have serious consequences for years. If you don't hand the phone over for a search you could be subjected to further inspection of all your hand and checked baggage. You can also be refused entry into the United States. As one immigration lawyer said, "They can just declare you an immigration risk, detain you or turn you away until you co-operate." You can fight it but t's a long and difficult process.

Supposedly a border agent will only ask to see a mobile device if they are suspicious or the person is on a watch list. In principle I know border agents are just doing what they are instructed to do. And yes, their job is to keep the country safe from terrorists, drug and human traffickers, child pornographers and other undesirables.

Travellers won't risk speaking up to border agents for fear of the repercussions. The border agents know they hold all the cards. And no doubt most of them play by the rules. What I fear is the bad apples taking advantage of people's rights and privacy.

UP AND DOWN

All these bans, increased security and unwelcoming messages have had a real effect on tourism to the US, despite tourism being up in most markets worldwide this past year. Even though Canadians visiting the US has increased overall visitation from other markets has decreased.

According to statistics from the new Visit US Coalition, America's share of global travel decreased from 13.6 % to 11.9%. The decrease represents 7.4 million fewer long haul visitors. The strong US dollar, complex visa requirements and low-cost air travel were the reasons cited by the coalition for the visitor decrease. All are valid reasons but one thing was left out - the Trump effect. The welcome mat has been put away by this administration and it is undermining the efforts of US state and local tourism bodies as well as private sector tourism suppliers.

Will 2018 be as disruptive and destructive as 2017? The world is moving on and we can only hope the Trump administration will change its tune and Mother Nature will be in a more positive and gentle mood this year. The world and the travel industry need it and I for one, will be grateful.


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Chris Ryall

An industry insider with strong, outspoken opinions that readers enjoy, whether they agree, or take issue with his point of view.

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