Suppose we look back at 2019—not 2020—and its key data points. Then, with some imagineering and a nod of acknowledgement to some irrefutable facts of life regarding what it takes to live a global pandemic, let’s do a quick sketch of where the path we’ll cut in 2021 might take us. In other words, there follows a compact outlook for the USA’s top overseas source markets for inbound tourism to the United States.
Background: At about this time every year, INBOUND attempts to prepare a serious review of the past year’s developments and, after factoring into the mix in-country economic, political developments and relevant data, we boldly make some predictions about how the country market will perform. And, of course, we do a broad overview of the overall, or global inbound tourism market—both overseas and international (the latter includes Mexico and Canada, which we will focus on in a latter issue).
This year, it would be impossible to do a market review when, simply stated, there was no market for most of 2020. So, with a little inductive reasoning, we used relevant data that we have on hand for country market performance in the several years (2017, 2018 and 2019) prior to 2020, as well as some trend information and market knowledge to make our assessments, there follows the elements of our abbreviated outlook.
• First, if there is progress worldwide in achieving some sort of meaningful containment of the COVID-19 virus now that there are effective vaccines available and which are being administered, there seems to be a consensus that recovery—in the U.S. at least—will begin in this year’s second quarter (Q1). While some key source markets would like to push to have their own early recovery beginning in Q1, there simply isn’t enough time to get flight schedules and seat capacity back to where it was in mid-March of last year—not to mention enough trained staff back in place.
• How we’ll be able to tell that recovery is underway: Since we don’t have the type of travel-and-tourism market model that would suit our purposes, per se, let’s look at arrivals data below for the Top 10 and Top 20 overseas source markets for the three years prior to 2020.
• How well do the Top 10/Top 20 represent the overseas market as a whole? The NTTO information we used for the tables above also show us that, in 2019:
—The Top 10 country markets sent 58 percent (more than 23.5 million) of all overseas visitors to the U.S., while …
—The Top 20 generated 73 percent (29.4 million) of all overseas visitors to the U.S.
• Can we determine if overseas travel to the U.S. was riding an upward or downward trend path during 2017-2019? Not really, but a review of the Top 20 indicates that, of the 20 markets tabulated above, eight of them had record-setting years in 2019. (Six others had record-breaking years in 2015 and another had a recording-setting year in 2017.) Sure seems more like an “upward” path.
• About 2021–Keeping in mind that because Q1 activity and arrivals will be tepid, here are some caption-length notes on the Top 20:
1. United Kingdom: Any normal projection or prediction will suggest that the number of UK visitors to the U.S. this year will come nowhere near their figures for Q2-Q4 in 2019, but surveys of British travelers in 2020 showed a determined stubbornness to have a U.S. holiday regardless. And pent-up demand is ready to explode. We’ll have a better idea when we see how the “peak” travel sales month of January does.
2. Japan: Look at the arrivals figures from Japan, and one sees a flatline extending back for a decade or more (there is a small downward plop related to the Great Recession of 2008-09) and it will likely continue, as the nation has a low birth rate and little prospect of replacing people in key traveler demographic groups. This year, the focus of much of the industry in Japan has to do with the Olympic Games, which are supposed to run from July 23 to August 8. As of this writing, it was not certain that the games would take place. So dismal was activity 2020 that the Japan Association of Travel Agents (JATA) didn’t distribute a single issue of its quarterly survey report of the travel trade.
3. China: Strongest bet for 2021—If. Its economy is strong. It has virtually eliminated COVID 19. Demand for travel is strong. But … the Chinese government has been critical of the U.S. and has sometimes discouraged Chinese citizens from traveling to the USA. And then there is the high rate of rejection on visa applications to visit the United States. Can we deal with such issues in time for a summer surge?
4. South Korea: Ever since Nov. 17, 2011, when it became a part of the Visa Waiver Program, South Korea has increased the number of visitors it sends to the United States at near-meteoric levels—from 704,000 in 2009 to 2.3 million in 2019. There was a slight retreat in 2018—the result of the Chinese government’s reaction to installation of a U.S. military system and apprehension over the actions of North Korea. But with its close bond to the USA and with much of its traveling population speaking American English, South Korea is a near-sure bet for 2021.
5. Brazil: No market amazes INBOUND as much as Brazil does. Following its worst economic recession from 2014-2016, a series of politics-related headlines that would weaken any country and, last year, another economic recession … the list goes on. But so does the Brazilian spirit known as “jogo de cintura,” which makes Brazilians believe that can adapt to any situation. Also, there have been some astute industry moves that helped the tourism industry hang on last year—primarily by promoting domestic tourism and keeping the industry infrastructure active, in spite of some contraction. Q2-Q4 activity could match 2019 levels.
6. Germany. This market was going nowhere into positive growth territory even before the global pandemic essentially shut down the travel and tourism industry. While its total visitor numbers to the USA are strong, they are static. Germany has a major structural problem: a slow, slow birthrate is draining the population of enough new recruits to the long-haul travel sector of the market. Maybe next year (2022).
7. France: The profile and performance of France as a strong Visit USA source market should continue to manifest itself as soon as its travelers sense recovery is on the way. NTTO survey information tells us that the French have a warm spot for NYC (40 percent of French travelers to the USA visited it in 2019) and high-brow activity (43 percent visited an art museum during their U.S. visit), along with an innate curiosity about things American. Should some sense of normalcy return to the marketplace, the 2019 indicators tell us that we can count on France.
8. India: As a source market for overseas tourism, the outlook seems bright for India—as it has been in the immediate past. It hasn’t had a contraction in its annual Visit USA numbers this century. Aside from a natural interest in the U.S. (It sends more students to the U.S. than any nation but China, and VFR is a reason that many Indians visit the USA), the international tourism infrastructure has grown steadily over the past two decades as more and more connecting flights arrive at, and depart from, India. Q2-Q4 traffic to the United States from India should increase vs. the same period in 2019.
9. Australia: ‘Twas a double whammy that hit this nation’s economy in 2020—a global pandemic and a six-month recession—not to mention a considerable number of Australians out of work. So, there won’t be the discretionary income Aussies usually enjoy to take their holidays as they are accustomed to. With the country already on the way toward an underperforming economy in 2021, don’t expect the country’s Visit USA numbers to rebound this year or, likely, next year as well.
10. Italy: As long as there is a New York City, there will be a steady stream of Italians visiting the USA, because nearly half of them go to NYC every year. In recent years, though, operators have been going “beyond the gateways” and are selling a variety of U.S. product to Italians. While the national economy of Italy has its peaks and valleys, the travel industry has been relatively stable and depends on the euro which, since 2016, has itself been stable vs. the U.S. dollar. It will be interesting to see if the fondness for New York City is diminished due to COVID-19-related fears. No matter, there is much more of America to see.
11. Colombia: It is remarkable that the tourism businesses in Colombia, a nation of 50 million people, have had the ability to compete with other sectors of the national economy for resources, as some 4 million Venezuelans fled their troubled home country from 2015 to mid-2019. The refugee population has drained the country’s economy. Even so, the number of Colombians visiting the USA set a record in 2019. As the refugee challenge diminishes, the possibility of a healthy 2021 vs. the 2019 Q2-Q4 numbers seems plausible.
12: Spain: We’re not a gambling lot here at INBOUND, but were we so, we would move many of our chips to Spain. Its mix of travel products and the global signature to all these products (there are tourism companies with connected roots in Mexico—especially Cancún—Latin America, Philadelphia, PA and the Iberian Peninsula as well as Palma de Mallorca) has given industry leaders the opportunity to shelter or rehabilitate weak units. There has also been strong growth in airline lift capacity as connected flights from all over Europe now depart from Spanish cities on their way to the U.S. It’s no surprise that Spain hasn’t had a weak year since 2012.
13. Argentina: Searching for the words that would best describe the situation in Argentina, we found this in the FOCUSECONOMICS publication last week: “The economy should rebound, albeit timidly, in 2021 after this year’s sharp contraction. That said, protracted macroeconomic imbalances, sky-high inflation, capital controls and potentially market-unfriendly policies will weigh on growth.” Only the well-to-do (not necessarily a small number, by the way) will be visiting the USA this year.
14: Netherlands: With the exception of 2009 during the Great Recession and a softening of the European economy in 2016, the Netherlands has been—and should continue to be—the source of a steady level of visitors to the United States. Few countries have a population that is as fluent in English (and American English at that) as does the Netherlands. It’s possible that the country, where anti-Donald Trump sentiment has been high, might have an uptick now that he will no longer be U.S. president.
15. Ireland: Proportionately speaking, no nation produces as many visitors to the United States as does Ireland. Though the methodology is admittedly flawed, the numbers tell us that, in 2019, the country’s 4.9 million people sent more than a tenth of its population (521 thousand) to the USA, and more than 20 percent of them visited family or friends. A strong economy, a fruitful membership in the EU and with so many relatives who speak the same language, Ireland seems likely to send more people, proportionately speaking, than any other Top 20 overseas market for some time to come.
16. Taiwan: In 2013, the year after it was approved to be a part of the Visa Waiver Program, Taiwan’s output of visitors to the USA increased by 39 percent, and it has increased, modestly, every year since to the point at which it totaled a half-million in 2019. Promoting travel to the U.S. from Taiwan is an activity that is fraught with anxiety, however, as China insists that it be considered part of China proper.
17. Dominican Republic: We are inclined to believe that the relatively high position of the DR among inbound tourism markets has something to do with its VFR appeal, as an estimated 2.1 million Hispanics of Dominican origin lived in the United States in 2017 (compared to 707,000 in the year 2000, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey). We see no compelling reason that the DR’s share should diminish this year.
18: Switzerland: While its population is small (8.7 million), it is large enough to produce somewhere at or above its 2019 level (475 million) for nearly a decade. With a strong currency and a long tradition of international travel, the country should register levels that, at the very least, match those of 2019.
19. Ecuador: We expect that the reputation among Ecuadorians will remain and keep its level of visitation to the U.S. near or slightly above what it has been. The small country—it is known as the Switzerland of South America—has a small population but a significant number of high-income net-worthers who like the U.S. as a long-haul destination.
20. Sweden: It’s difficult to pinpoint the reason for the recent decline in the popularity of the U.S. among Swedes. Visitation fell in 2017, 2018 and 2019. Meanwhile, the value of its currency has actually increased against the dollar. Perhaps it has had something to do with the popularity of U.S. President Donald J. Trump. Earlier in 2020, his confidence rating among Swedes had fallen to 15 percent according to a Pew Research Center survey. With Trump gone—who knows?