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People walk along Las Vegas Boulevard on Monday, March 20, 2017. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

By Abbi Whitaker

One of Nevada’s top foreign exports faces serious challenges from America’s quarrelsome foreign policies and the Trump administration’s threats to impose tariffs on trading partners across the world.

The threatened export? Tourism.

Unlike other international trade, in which U.S. goods are shipped overseas for foreign consumption, tourism brings foreigners to America and to consume American products. Either way, the economic effect is the same: Foreigners spend money on American goods, boosting the American economy.

Most everyone realizes the importance of tourism to Nevada’s economy. Studies conducted for the Nevada Division of Tourism estimate that tourism is almost a $40 billion industry in the state. The revenues generated by tourism sustain 27 percent of the jobs in our communities.

International tourism accounts for an estimated 10.7 percent of the 56 million visitors who come to Nevada each year. 

Those international tourists spend big dollars — $1,258 a day, one recent study estimates, compared to an average of $639 day spent by visitors from elsewhere in the United States. 

The effects of international tourism ripple across the state. More than 40 percent of foreign visitors travel around Nevada to see Reno, Lake Tahoe and the wide-open spaces that are a marvel to visitors from crowded cities around the globe.

By the most conservative calculations, foreign visitors account for nearly $4.3 million of spending in Nevada’s economy every year.

To put that into perspective:  The amount generated by international tourism is nearly the same as the amount of gold ($4.9 billion) sold by Nevada’s mines onto world markets last year.

International tourism hasn’t come directly into the crosshairs of trade negotiators, but economists who follow the industry closely say there’s no doubt that trade wars are having an impact.

Last year, when trade wars between the United States and China began to take root, tourism from China stopped dead in its tracks. The number of Chinese visitors to the United States fell by 5.7 percent, the first decline in 15 years.

Tourism Economics, a respected analysis firm, says data collected by the federal government shows a further 2.4 percent decline in Chinese tourism in the first quarter of this year, and the firm doesn’t expect any improvement for the rest of 2019.

The situation further deteriorated in June, when Chinese officials cautioned travelers that travel in the United States might not be safe. Street crime is on the rise, the Chinese government said, and it cautioned its citizens that law enforcement agencies are hassling Chinese visitors.

But the chill in foreign visits to the United States isn’t limited to Chinese tourists.

Tourism Economics says the United States is hosting far fewer visitors from Germany these days, and the firm says reactions by Germans to unpopular American diplomacy and policies may be to blame.

Visitors from Mexico, traditionally a key international market for Las Vegas tourism, slumped after America’s 2016 elections and haven’t fully rebounded. 

The international tourism sector in Nevada and elsewhere faces an additional challenge from the strong U.S. dollar, which forces foreign visitors to use more of their own currency to buy the dollars they need to pay for hotels, meals and entertainment.

The threats to Nevada’s international tourism sector have been masked so far by the vibrant U.S. economy and the willingness of American consumers to enjoy all that Nevada has to offer.

But if the U.S. economy cools, those foreign travelers will become all the more important to Nevada. We can’t allow one of our most important exports to become collateral damage in trade wars and America First diplomacy.

Abbi Whitaker is the cofounder and president of the Abbi Agency, a PR firm in Northern Nevada.

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