Family Travel in a (Tricky) New Travel Climate

  • Ethan Gelber
  • 16 March 2017

Have passport, will travel. Or will you? In the new travel climate, it many not be as easy, or you may not feel as comfortable as you used to.

“It’s a weird time to be in the travel industry,” understates Matt Villano, a U.S.-based freelance travel writer and editor. Caught between a rock (slumping travel demand in the U.S. due to new, restrictive policy directives) and a hard place (threats of tighter visa rules for U.S. travelers overseas), he laments how “The current climate would make any travel writer – really any American who travels for a living – paranoid. For us family travel writers, however, the stakes are even higher.” (Read Matt’s expanded thoughts.)

At issue today in the U.S. are the now-infamous shifts in U.S. immigration policy spearheaded by the new American administration over the last two months. These include vigorous enforcement of laws governing some immigrants already in the U.S. and the pair of executive orders temporarily banning travel to the U.S. by the citizens of several Muslim-majority nations and all refugees – the first order blocked by a Seattle court last month and the second revised one just blocked yesterday by a federal judge in Hawaii.

These are important because, in the best of circumstances, “For family travel to be transformational, the message must be warm, open, and hospitable. Parents do not, and should not, expect anything else. In this case, the [travel bans] may be giving them pause,” remarks Erin Kirkland, publisher of AKontheGO. (Read Erin’s expanded thoughts.)

But troubles are brewing outside the U.S. too. Recently, the European Parliament used the rules of visa reciprocity to declare that U.S. passport holders might soon have to apply and pay for visas to Europe. This follows U.S. failure to extend visa-free travel to all E.U. countries – residents of 23 E.U. countries for whom it is permitted, as well as citizens of Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Poland and Romania, for whom it presently is not. The Parliament’s decision, though non-binding, sets June 15th as the deadline for the E.U. Commission to act if the U.S. doesn’t amend its policy. Of course, this is happening against a backdrop of rising anti-immigrant, right-wing populism and xenophobia in Europe.

And there’s more. For a couple of years, in an effort to counter child-trafficking in Africa, South Africa has required any adults in families visiting the country to prove parenthood or guardianship of accompanying children using original birth certificates. The rules are even more complex for single parents or adults traveling with children who are not biologically their own. Despite heavy criticism of the travel-dampening regulations, Botswana has followed suit.

So what is one – any traveler, but especially traveling families – to do in an environment where more and higher travel obstacles are shuttering borders that were once open, and where an overarching sense of negativity is making people think twice about leaving home?

“There’s no doubt that travel changes the way people see the world, and stressing the positive aspects of it is a priority for Intrepid,” reports Leigh Barnes, North American Director of Intrepid Travel. (Read Leigh’s expanded thoughts.)

Instead, as Fred Dixon, the chief executive of NYC & Company, remarked in an interview with The New York Times, statements and actions by U.S. leaders have changed perceptions about the hospitality of the United States just as prospective tourists are making vacation plans for 2017. In anticipation of the second travel ban executive order, he added that “Regardless of the specifics, it’s pretty clear the message is going to be unwelcoming.” (Read Fred’s expanded thoughts.)

The Mythos of Open Borders

For many years, the desire for open borders between nations has been driven by, among other things, a belief that the free migration of people (frequently interpreted as a United Nations–declared human right) would benefit global markets, reduce world poverty and curb the occurrence of regional wars. Those are just some of the “hard” economic and political reasons and, until recently, the European Union was held up as a shining modern example of open borders’ virtues.

After all, “Travel can help drive cross-cultural understanding and support initiatives to bridge cultural divides, fostering global citizenry and a more universally connected world,” muses Jennifer Spatz, the CEO and founder of Global Family Travels. (Read Jennifer’s expanded thoughts.)

In contrast to this are the arguments against open borders – usually also for controlled or, in extreme circumstances, closed borders. Adherents focus in large part on the negative impacts of migration: perceived threats to security and public safety, concerns about demographic shifts (and the changes wrought to culture and politics) and pressure on public systems and infrastructure.

A part of the U.S.-Mexico border wall that already exists. It's just one piece of a policy puzzle that appears to have stifled travel to the U.S.

Caught in the middle of this is the tourism industry. On the one hand, it is anchored in the previously mentioned “hard” economic and political principles, but also the “soft” positive benefits of unencumbered border crossings – things like fostering cross-cultural empathy, shared values, global citizenship and cultural discovery, countering stereotypes and bridging divides. On the other hand, it banks on things like coherent travel systems, services and structures, and safe and secure travel environments. For tourism to function, people must be able to cross a border with as little inconvenience as possible, but also feel at ease in the place they are visiting.

Unfortunately, the balanced status quo that has existed for many years is now being challenged.

Hit Coming and Going

The changes to U.S. policy could have a particularly noticeable impact on traffic to the U.S. and, by extension, the 15.1 million American jobs in tourism. For instance, quite a few overseas-based tour operators registered a sharp drop in bookings to the U.S. after the change in policy. Numbers presented by the U.S. Travel Association and reviewed by Tourism Economics suggest a theoretical decline of 6.3 million foreigner visitors to the U.S., which could manifest as an economic loss of $10.8 billion per year, only for leisure tourism. This does not include forecast losses from education or medical tourism, on which the typical traveler spends much more than the average foreign tourist. It also doesn’t factor in multiples of the reported loss of $185 million in business traveler reservations just in the first week following the first travel ban announcement.

“The recent policy shifts about immigration will not stop me from travelling with my family, but it has certainly made me think twice about travelling to the U.S.,” rues Deborah Dickson-Smith, an Australia-based publisher, travel writer and blogger. “I have heard many people talk of boycotting the country.” (Read Deborah’s expanded thoughts.)

“My heart does go out to US-based incoming operators, because it certainly sounds like there may be a drop in incoming business to the USA,” confirms Rob Rankin, the managing director of Vagabond Adventure Tours of Ireland.

But the worries are just as deep both for American families considering overseas travel and for services endeavoring to meet their needs.

“While a lot of concern right now is focused on inbound travel, which is sure to take a hit, travel agents are also worried about outbound international travel,” says Kenneth Shapiro, Editor-in-Chief of Family Getaways. (Read Kenneth’s expanded thoughts.)

For one thing, the new policies are creating a climate where some U.S. travelers might feel unwelcome overseas.

“More liberal family values may stand behind the theory that ‘they aren’t going to scare me’ and ‘my kids and myself value the learnings of travel too much to forgo it.’ More conservative and other xenophobic sorts may in fact decide to stay home for fears of violence or perhaps even retribution against Americans,” observes Therese Iknoian, a cofounder of HI Travel Tales. (Read Therese’s expanded thoughts.)

In addition, while “[Some people] are not afraid of terrorism abroad; they are afraid that they will face difficulty when they return to the U.S. because of the color of their skin. These are American citizens who worry that they or their children will be detained upon reentry and separated from their family,” explains Paige Conner Totaro, founder of All Over the Map, a vacation planning service. (Read Paige’s expanded thoughts.)

Given this, concludes Shapiro, “if suppliers begin to perceive that fewer people will travel internationally, it’s entirely logical that they would pull back and eliminate some tours, flights, cruises etc. If the industry reacts in this way, then there will simply be fewer options for travelers – and travel agents. And, in some cases, it could take years to see these travel options return to previous levels.”

Of course, how this affects children is impossible to gauge. “It’s difficult to explain these new policies… to ourselves, let alone our kids and people abroad,” says Dr. Jessie Voigts, founder of Wandering Educators. (Read Jessie’s expanded thoughts.)

A visa stamp at immigration -- for some travelers, they're easy to come by: free and delivered on arrival. For others, getting a visa can be a long hard slog. If visas become harder to get (as Europe has suggested might be the case for Americas), what effect would that have on travel?

Visa Matters

For many families accustomed to easy and cost-free transit across the national frontiers of common travel destinations, the new border bureaucracy and fees are a real inconvenience.

“We have data to back up the main fact that, in almost every case, travelers will choose an easier or exempt visa destination over a destination with a drawn-out visa process,” emphasizes Ashish Sanghrajka, founder of Big Five Tours & Expeditions. (Read Ashish’s expanded thoughts.)

“Our travel plans generally aren’t affected by visas,” reports Eric Stoen, founder of Travel Babbo, about his family travels. “Having said that, we’ll sometimes prioritize our travel based on visas.” (Read Eric’s expanded thoughts.)

Cost is a factor too. Consider a family of four taking a trip to Europe for the first time. If the European visa regime is changed, not only could the process of securing visas – involving applications, properly sized pictures, cashier’s checks and either courier mail services or consulate visits – dissuade an inexperienced family, but so could the final fee. If a U.S. visa were priced at $165, Europe would charge an equivalent reciprocal fee and a four-person family would be hit with a $660 bill. That could be too much for a family on a budget.

And yet the obstacles, while inconvenient, are hardly insurmountable. “In advance, we notify families of the documentation required by South Africa for families travelling with children and it has not been an issue,” shares Pamela Lassers, Director of Media Relations for Abercrombie & Kent USA. (Read Pamela’s expanded thoughts.)

“The good news is that the likelihood of a visa requirement being implemented [in Europe] is remote, as the hospitality category places an extremely high value on visitors from the U.S.” reports Steve Born, the vice president of marketing for the Globus family of brands. (Read Steve’s expanded thoughts.)

A Struggle Against Uncertainty

“In the short term, I think the uncertainty is the worst thing,” comments Eileen Gunn, editor and founder of FamiliesGo!. “It all seems very arbitrary and risky and it leaves people feeling powerless. So they cancel their travel plans to avoid that.” (Read Eileen’s expanded thoughts.)

It’s hard to know exactly how many individual families are foregoing their plans, but many professional groups have made their preferences clear, at least with respect to travel to the U.S. According to a Skift article, “As of February 22, more than 6,500 Canadian academics signed a pledge to ‘not attend international conferences in the U.S. while the ban persists,’ and more than 43,000 academics have signed another petition condemning the executive order. A group of astronomers behind the ‘Science Undivided’ initiative have pledged not to attend conferences in the U.S. ‘until they can be attended by all, regardless of citizenship, and invite academics from all fields to join them,’ said their press release. The pledge currently has more than 600 signatures.”

But avoiding powerlessness by canceling travel lays clear just how much “The bans and statements confuse the issues of travel visas, immigration and refugees – all quite different,“ notes Julia Slatcher, owner of Inspire World Travel, a travel agency. (Read Julia’s expanded thoughts.)

The disorder at the U.S.-Canadian border doesn’t help, where daily reports carry news of shocked tourists and bewildered volunteer groups being turned back based on false impressions or arcane technicalities. It’s even worse at U.S. airports, where scholars, musicians, a children’s book author and other business travelers with legal right to pursue their trade are regularly challenged and sometimes deported.

“Putting up barriers, whether physical or bureaucratic in nature, to legitimate leisure and business travel fosters a climate of fear and apprehension,” reflects Claudia Laroye, the Canada-based founder of The Travelling Mom. “The fostering of fear and the unknown application of the law in the travel sphere reduces travel to those destinations.” (Read Claudia’s expanded thoughts.)

“Our biggest issue with international travel is fear,” avers Tom Peyton, Vice President of Family Dive Adventures. “Creating more fear and instability only creates new road blocks for family travel. You would think a famous and success businessman, our president, would understand this simple fact. Fear is bad for the travel business.” (Read Tom’s expanded thoughts.)

But Security Is Still Very Important

No one believes that the U.S. should compromise its national security. Whether one supports the U.S. travel orders or not, the belief in the need to protect our borders is unwavering. Similarly, there is general agreement that all travelers should be safe and vigilant.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection Station. Just how far should we go to protect U.S. security. Some think farther than others.

“Safety during travel, and managing risk exposure in travel destinations, takes priority to me over all other considerations, including political opinions,” stresses Doug Cole, owner of Marble Mountain Guest Ranch. (Read Doug’s expanded thoughts.)

This current runs deep in many ways. For example, the security challenges facing travel and tourism are central to the U.S. Travel Association’s inaugural Secure Tourism Summit on April 19 in New York City.

Many people, however, see a need for solutions that have been carefully thought through more fully than appears to have been the case with some recent policy.

“Yes, we need homeland security. But we do not need the current kind of overreaction that risks harming an important sector of our economy,” reminds Eileen Ogintz, syndicated columnist of the weekly column Taking the Kids. (Read Eileen’s expanded thoughts.)

“Security is a top priority for the U.S. travel community, but it’s critical to balance both sides of the ledger: make clear who is not welcome, but also who remains welcome,” said Roger Dow, President and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association. “Not doing so would be to double-down on doubts, discontent and division that risk significant economic harm.”

A Rough Ride We Will Survive

“The world is evolving, and travel must change with it. How this will all play out is yet to be seen,” says Kirsten Maxwell, founder of Kids Are a Trip. (Read Kirsten’s expanded thoughts.)

It’s true. “The travel industry is very resilient,” believes Sally Black, Mom Executive Officer of VacationKids, a travel agency. “It has survived many a recent catastrophe… Zika, terrorism, swine flu etc. Parents work too dang hard 351 days per year to give up their two-week respite from their jobs. I think we will see a shift in destinations not a stop to vacations.” (Read Sally’s expanded thoughts.)

In fact, families deserve a vacation more than ever, especially in light of recent news about access to other countries. And despite data to the contrary, some organizations are still seeing growth in family travel.

“Right after the initial ban was announced, we had some shifting of plans, but we haven’t seen evidence of that since then,” notes Amie O’Shaughnessy, founder of Ciao Bambino!, a family travel editorial and planning resource. (Read Amie’s expanded thoughts.)

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Ethan Gelber

In addition to his freelance travel writing (Lonely Planet author, ex-AFAR Ambassador, Huffington Post Travel blogger and more), Ethan has agitated tirelessly for responsible/sustainable travel practices, family travel, keeping things local, and quality and relevance in publishing and destination marketing. Among many other things, Ethan is editorial director of the Family Travel Association, a co-founder of OutBounding, and tackles content projects for HomeExchange.com and RW Social, which produces the NY Trav Fest. Previously, Ethan was Chief Communications Officer of the WHL Group, for which he founded and edited The Travel Word (this now-independent blog); publications manager of the French government tourist office (Atout France) in NYC; and helped manage a Paris-based bicycle tour operator.
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Africa, Botswana, children, Europe, family travel, health, North America, Northern America, opinion, personal experience, South Africa, Southern Africa, USA, whl.travel,

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