Travel in the age of Trump
This year, after 10 years, my US visa will expire. It was my first visa, stamped to the first page of my first passport. I am on to my fourth passport right now, the second, third and fourth bulkier—“jumbo” as it is called—than the first, as if in reflection of my own weight gain over the decade. I rarely carry or look at my old passports unless I am travelling to the US. Only then do I have to pull out the raggedy slim 36-pager in which I look like a freshly skinned chicken and show them the stamp. There are different views about how arduous the consular process is to obtain a US visa but at least it has the advantage of carrying over, as opposed to, say, the Schengen or UK or Japan visas, which I have had to renew every time I got a new passport, even if the visa hadn’t expired.
So, will I renew my US visa? I don’t know. I suppose if a business trip comes up and there is a real imperative, I will have to. For now, I have no motivation: The idea of travelling to a country where Donald Trump is president is anathema to me. I would find the air too vitiated, I tell myself. Most of the places I like in the US are not on the coasts, which tend to be more liberal, but inland, in the Midwest, where Trumpism is at its most intense. The US is a beautiful country but I just don’t feel too excited at the prospect of xenophobic encounters.
It’s not just me. The UK Telegraph quotes a pre-election survey of British customers conducted by a holiday website as reporting that “1 in 5 respondents …would definitely not consider the USA as a destination should Trump be elected”. The managing director for that website told the paper that his company is forecasting “an unstable 2017 for US tourism, with over one million UK travellers set to reconsider the country as a holiday destination”.
For people of colour travelling to the US from the Middle East or South Asia, there is of course a lot more at stake than just uncertainty. There are real worries about targeted surveillance, stricter entry criteria and even personal safety. Royal Jordanian Airlines tried to make lemonade out of that: A day before the 8 November election, it ran an ad for promotional fares with the slogan “Just in case he wins…travel to the US while you’re still allowed to!” That’s just travel to the US. Who is to say what will happen to the nascent boom in American arrivals into Iran and Cuba under a Trump administration? Then there is the promise of an amazing technicolor wall between the US and Mexico, which will potentially destroy the Big Bend National Park in Texas, a major tourist attraction, in the process.
That’s just the holiday makers. A Trump administration will likely put off business travellers too, because, ever since ships have crossed oceans, trade and travel have been bedfellows (the World Travel and Tourism Council agrees. In a 2014 report, it concluded that there is “a clear causal relationship between business travel and international trade” and that business travel was responsible for more than a third of the growth in world exports). What was true in the days of the East India Company, when they came with sails unfurled and left with their chests full, is still true in these days of continental flights, with their accoutrements of cross-border deals and duty-free shopping. Although only time will tell if Trump means any of what he says, so far his rhetoric has been soundly anti-trade, promising to renege on the Trans-Pacific Partnership which brings 12 countries that touch the Pacific, from Chile to Japan to New Zealand, into a high-quality trade agreement, and insisting that he will walk away from the decades-old North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) with Mexico. By all indications, the US-European Union trade negotiations to build a transatlantic trade and investment partnership (T-TIP) will be stillborn. There is also talk of imposing outsized tariffs on Chinese goods coming into the US, about which the economist Paul Krugman wrote, “There will be retaliation, big time” (“And The Trade War Came”, The New York Times). Part of this, no doubt, will be effected through visa policies.
It wouldn’t be the first time though that “America turned inward”. Ruchir Sharma, author of the best-selling Breakout Nations and somebody who believes we have entered a new age of de-globalization, points to similar legislation in the 1930s when America raised tariffs on trade and clamped down on immigration (“When Borders Close”, The New York Times).
If a Trump presidency indeed begins a period of American isolationism similar to the 1930s, it is possible that there would be more people like me who let their expired visas lie expired. Could it be the beginning of the end of US as a top travel destination, with global travellers turning away from it? Maybe.
Although, they say, Aeroflot flights to the US will likely increase.
Red Eye is a monthly column on the odds of travelling for business. Abhijit Dutta tweets at @abhijit1507.