The U.S. is a wonderful tourist destination, with vibrant cities, scenic national parks, world-class museums and sports arenas, and a delicious panoply of food and beverages, among other delights and attractions.
Or, looked at another way, the U.S. is a violent hellscape where wealthy cities are filled with homeless encampments, the government was nearly overthrown in a coup, life expectancy is lower — and health care spending much higher — than in any other large and wealthy nation on Earth, civilian-owned guns far outnumber people, a mass shooting happens about once a day, school shootings are so prevalent that kindergartners are drilled on active shooter scenarios, and even something as purely American as Little League baseball games are thrown into chaos by random gunfire.
That latter view got a fresh airing after yet another spate of mass shootings — this time at a Tennessee private school, a Kentucky bank, a Texas neighborhood, a Texas outlet mall — and a series of encounters where people were shot just for mistakenly approaching the shooter’s house or car. A Twitter user in Australia then dug up and posted a video the FBI released in September 2020 — when few people were going out — on how to survive a mass shooting in a public space.
“Broken country,” tweeted Kat Abu of Media Matters. “I am from Australia — can someone please explain if this is parody or not?” another Twitter user, Stu Mac, asked earnestly. It was not. “Other countries don’t have to do this,” said another Australian. “People in other countries don’t even have to think about things like this.” Another response: “This should be shown on international flights as the plane lands in America.” And another: “American Visas should come with a warning like a cigarette pack.”
The replies were filled with foreigners agreeing that the video and its necessity are crazy, some lamentations that the U.S. is hosting the next World Cup, Americans saying they have to watch videos like this for work and at school, others saying they cried after watching the video, and a few people calling it proof you should carry a gun to bars and restaurants.
So, is America a top-level destination for families and other tourists, or a nation too dangerous for all but the most hardened, risk-tolerant travelers?
What do other countries say, officially?
For decades, the U.S. has “enjoyed the supremacy and monopoly of issuing travel warnings” for citizens considering visits to “countries marred by violence or terrorism,” the Tourism Academy travel industry school observed in a June 2022 essay. “The balance of power has however shifted, with foreign nations warning their citizens to avoid traveling to the United States,” starting after a pair of back-to-back deadly mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, in 2019.
Even then, the number of countries raising their warning levels was small: Venezuela and Uruguay urged their citizens to avoid travel to the U.S., while the Japanese Consulate in Detroit, 200 miles north of Dayton, noted that the U.S. is a “gun society” and advised Japanese citizens they “should be aware of the potential for gunfire incidents everywhere in the United States.” Amnesty International called on “people worldwide to exercise caution and have an emergency contingency plan when traveling throughout the USA” due to “ongoing high levels of gun violence in the country.”
Other countries, like New Zealand, Canada, Ireland, and Germany, have cautioned their citizens about America’s gun violence without advising them to stay away. Most of the big drivers of U.S. tourism counsel would-be visitors that “the U.S. is more violent than what you’re used to,” they should “learn to take precautions that you might not have to take at home,” and “violent crime rarely involves tourists,” CNN Travel reported in January.
Concern about U.S. gun violence and tourism isn’t exactly new, as this 2015 New Yorker cartoon illustrates.
But before 2019, foreign tourists to the U.S. were mostly warned about things like “expensive emergency health care, overly sensitive attitudes toward nude sunbathing, and gross tap water,” Mental Floss reported in 2016, with examples.
But mass killings started to rise in the U.S. in 2019, and they have kept going up amid a subsequent jump in gun sales and mental and financial stress from the Covid-19 pandemic, James Alan Fox, a gun violence expert at Northeastern University, told USA Today. Mass shootings “are the kinds of events that make headlines, scare people, and make them look around when they go into a supermarket or retail store,” he added. The U.S. typically experiences about six public mass shootings a year, but it reached that number in May with the outlet mall shooting in Allen, Texas.
Is America getting a free pass from wealthy allies?
Yes, “even in our thoroughly globalized world, there is an inherent unfairness in how we determine what countries are ‘safe’ to visit in the wake of a tragedy,” and the U.S. especially gets a “seemingly infinite benefit of the doubt,” Rosie Spinks wrote at Skift in 2019. Tourism lives and dies on perception, and America gets to “indulge in a kind of identity-forging belief that it is ‘the greatest country in the world’ — even when, say, it’s the only country in the world that suffers mass shootings to this degree.”
In fact, unlike the State Department’s Level 2 advisory for parts of Europe or its guidance “for Turkey — which, at Level 3, advises travelers to ‘reconsider travel’ and stay away from regions near the Syrian and Iraqi border — there is no rhyme or reason to where the threat of a mass shooting in the U.S. lies,” Spinks pointed out. You could get shot anywhere, at any time, “and sure, while the statistical likelihood of a traveler being caught up in a mass shooting in America is low, is it any lower than that of a terrorism attack in Turkey or Western Europe?”
Has gun violence affected tourism?
Anecdotally, yes. And there is some data that suggests tourism drops off for months in places where there were high-profile mass shootings, like Las Vegas after the Route 91 Harvest country music festival in 2017 and Orlando after 2016’s Pulse nightclub killings.
Nationally, foreign tourism numbers dipped across the U.S. a bit in 2019, then plummeted in 2020 and 2021, after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. International visitor arrivals jumped 128% between 2021 and 2022, to 50.9 million visitors from 22.3 million, according to the U.S. International Trade Administration, but foreign arrival numbers were still 36% lower than in 2019.
Even after pandemic-related testing requirements to enter the U.S. lifted, “travelers are likely to pause before rushing back to a country where hate crimes and mass shootings are becoming far too commonplace,” Lebawit Lily Girma wrote at Skift in June 2022. Travelers do research their destinations while planning a trip, Eastern Kentucky University hospitality and tourism professor Daegeun Kim told USA Today, and the more frequently they see news about gun violence at “a destination where they want to go, it is more likely that it’s going to affect their decision-making process.”
Canada was the top source of U.S. tourism in 2022, followed closely by Mexico, with Britain a distant third. But “there’s no getting around it — gun violence and racial and political division are growing deterrents for Canadians and other international travelers to visit one of the world’s great destinations,” Bruce Parkinson wrote at Canadian Travel News in May 2022. “We love exploring the United States,” but “for many Canadians, real freedom is about living in a civil, tolerant society where gun violence is a minuscule threat. The same goes for when we travel.”
And it’s not just Canada, Parkinson added. “The fact is that most of the world sees America’s unfettered gun laws as bizarre and disturbing. And a growing number are literally afraid of traveling to places where the guy sitting beside them at the bar may have a gun on his hip — and is fully within his rights to do so.”
Should tourists shun the U.S.?
“In Europe there is a deep sense that U.S. rampant gun violence is a totally domestic issue, tragic of course, both a stain to the country’s image and a total mystery, but that it won’t affect the visitor’s everyday life,” Vincent Bontoux, a consultant based in France who recently visited New York City with his 87-year-old mother, told Skift.
There is demonstrably more gun violence in the U.S. than in any other large, wealthy country — 4.12 firearm homicides per 100,000 people versus 0.18 in Australia and 0.04 in the United Kingdom, USA Today reports, citing research by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. And other U.S. news reaches an international audience as well.
“You just never know how police will behave, what will happen on the border, whether or not you’ll be shot by someone,” said Alexandra Mirskikh, a Ukrainian living in the Netherlands who now avoids visiting the U.S. “The world is really large,” she added. “There are so many places I haven’t been.”
“We understand that the events and headlines we have been seeing may cause concerns to those abroad — we as American citizens also share that concern,” Chris Thompson, CEO of tourism market firm BrandUSA, told Skift in 2022.
“I think one, this is a big country, and two, we need to address the issue — but it’s not an issue where I feel unsafe walking down the street or traveling in the U.S,” and that context should be made clear, Elliot Ferguson, CEO of Destination DC, told Skift. “Collectively, when you look at all the reasons why America is an attractive destination, that has not changed,” he added. “There’s still a level of interest in our country that fortunately for us has not been skewed 100%.”