It seems a trending question within travel circles here and abroad: Given the current travel climate, how many millennials will be coming to the United States to visit and study in 2017? A group of four European young adults assembled for a panel at a youth-focused travel conference in early February shared their own viewpoints with me.
A Travel Industry Perspective
The STAY WYSE Hostel Conference convened in Amsterdam just days after the US government announced a limited travel ban. The conference annually attracts hundreds of buyers and sellers from the youth accommodations part of the global travel industry. I attended as CEO of Hostelling International USA (HI USA), a nonprofit that operates the largest USA hostel network, and as a board member of the World Youth and Student Educational (WYSE) Travel Confederation.
Citing safety and security concerns, the new Administration in late January announced a temporary halt on travel from seven majority-Muslim countries and a prohibition against Syrian refugees entering the US. While the ban is now being litigated in US courts, the youth travel and exchange community is grappling with its larger message to prospective US visitors.
The Youth Travel Segment
First, let’s consider what’s at stake. “The youth and student travel segment is now estimated to account for 23% of international arrivals annually,” notes David Chapman, Director General of the WYSE Travel Confederation. “In 2016, this equated to over 280 million youth travelers who spent more than $275 billion.” Youth travelers age between 15 and 29 years old.
At one-fifth of its overall international travel volume, in 2015 the US received more than 15.5 million international youth arrivals by my count, and they spent in excess of $45 billion as part of their summer holidays, backpack journeys, study abroad programs, language learning travel, internship exchanges, and au pair programs.
Chapman says the true impact goes much deeper than economics: “Study, work experience and travel are all components of the education and personal development of young people.” In a WYSE research survey, young travelers identified these major gains from travel:
- Interest in learning about other cultures, religions, traditions and influences (90%)
- More appreciation of other cultures (89%)
- More tolerance of cultural differences (84%)
- Better understanding of own culture (69%)
I have witnessed it first-hand again and again in our hostels: travel can contribute to a powerful form of exchange, particularly among young people. Yet millennials must be willing to travel to benefit from it.
Meet Four European Millennials
I asked four twenty-something panelists from the STAY WYSE conference to weigh in with their feelings on US travel this year. Not surprisingly, their views were mixed.
Alexy Pudovikin, 29, from Spain, confirmed his plans to visit the USA in 2017. “Coming from an EU country, I don’t believe there are any concerns,” Alexy said, yet he feels non-EU travelers should be similarly treated. “All people should get the opportunity to travel,” he affirmed, citing travel as a way for young adults to “develop our intercultural, interpersonal and communicative skills.”
Chloe, 23, from the Netherlands has never visited the United States, but believes deciding to travel there holds a new importance this year. “I think different people need to keep talking to each other in a respectful way to try to understand each other’s thought processes, in order to move forward to a more tolerant world. That being said, I think now is more important than ever to not stop going to the US.”
Two of the millennial panelists expressed concern about what the proposed travel restrictions might signal for the future.
Jessica Walker, 25, is a dual citizen of Italy and South Africa who has once visited the US. “I am concerned about the unpredictability right now. No one is certain what is or is not going to affect them.” Among her apprehensions is the possibility of wider changes in individual protections: “If people’s, especially women’s, right to make decisions over their own bodies were revoked.” She describes herself as “less likely” to travel to the US until there is more certainty.
Robbert Munsters, 28, is a Netherlands resident who has visited the USA twice with plans to visit again in 2017, but with some unease about how things might be changing. “I imagine arriving at LAX or JFK and being stopped and sent back. But is it a concern to me? On a personal level, no. On a global level it is a concern though, because it influences how people and cultures interact with and look at each other.”
What Does This All Mean?
It’s far too early to know how current events might shape the worldwide appeal of the United States as a youth travel destination, or how safety and security concerns will ultimately influence travel more widely. But it’s not too soon to consider the potential stakes if young adults from overseas choose to travel elsewhere.
As HI USA’s CEO, I’m of course concerned about the economic impact if fewer student and youth travelers choose to visit the USA in 2017. But of greater concern are the young adults who might alter their plans because they now perceive the USA as an unfriendly country. They will be missing out on our history and our culture, and the opportunity to engage with the majority of our population who have little patience for intolerance.
That will be heavy price for us all.