Hotels, restaurants and other businesses that depend on foreign travel to the U.S. have been complaining that President Donald Trump’s policies and rhetoric have scared away international visitors since he took office last year.
Now it appears that those claims are based on faulty data that underrepresented the number of arrivals from overseas, and the federal agency that compiles the data has said it will stop publishing new statistics until it can solve the problem. The issue derives from customs records that incorrectly categorized non-citizens traveling on visas as U.S. residents, according to an April 6 press release from the International Trade Administration’s National Travel and Tourism Office.
A March report from the agency had said that trips to the U.S. decreased by more than 6 percent in the first nine months of 2017. But private industry data, from airlines, credit-card companies and other sources, indicate that international travel actually increased by 2 percent last year — a “stark difference,” said Adam Sacks, president of Tourism Economics, which compiled the industry statistics. The flawed data also has ramifications for estimates of U.S. gross domestic product and trade balances, with travel and tourism showing an $83.9 billion trade surplus in 2016.
“Visitor spending is actually the No. 1 export that the U.S. has,” Sacks said.
Tim Truman, a spokesman for the International Trade Administration, hasn’t yet responded to questions about the cause of the data problem sent late Monday.
The travel industry has seized on the earlier reports that showed a decline in foreign visits. In January, the chief executives of Marriott International Inc. and Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc. both linked Trump’s policies to a decline in international travelers. Around the same time, a coalition of 10 trade groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Restaurant Association, started an industry group aimed at making the U.S. more popular with foreign tourists.
Sacks said such efforts are still important. His company’s estimate that international trips increased by 2 percent last year compares with a 7 percent gain in international trips worldwide, and 5 percent growth in international travel to Canada. The private data shows that U.S. visits originating in Mexico and the Middle East fell, indicating that Trump’s rhetoric has had an impact.
The data glitches may have begun as far back as 2014, according to the U.S. Travel Association, whose members use the government figures to plan their marketing efforts and budgets and as a guide to corroborate other industry data. The U.S. share of the international travel market began slipping in 2015 as the stronger dollar made Asia and Europe more appealing destinations for budget-conscious travelers, the trade group said.
Still, the U.S. Travel Association publicly praised the government’s decision to stop publishing data until the issue is fixed.
“We thought that the data was too pessimistic,” said Chris Kennedy, an association spokesman.