Nearly 34.6 million international travelers visited the United States in the first half of this year, a better-than-expected 9 percent increase over the same period a year ago, according to data released Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Commerce. But could Ebola fears reverse the trend in the coming months?
Probably not, industry experts say. "We don't see this affecting the global or U.S. travel and tourism numbers," said Max Rayner, a partner at Hudson Crossing travel consultancy—as long as the disease is contained.
So far, health officials seem confident that it will be.
"Ebola can be scary. But there's all the difference in the world between the U.S. and parts of Africa where Ebola is spreading," Tom Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, assured reporters on Tuesday after the first U.S. case was confirmed in Texas. "I have no doubt that we will contain this," he said.
The disease has had an impact on travel to the hardest-hit areas in West Africa, where more than 6,500 cases have been reported and nearly 3,100 people have died. After remaining fairly steady through the beginning of the summer, searches to Western African destinations plummeted 65 percent in August, according to an analysis of online searches on the travel-planning site Hopper, conducted at CNBC's request.
The U.N. World Tourism Organization acknowledged in August that the Ebola outbreak could affect tourism to the region "due to misperceptions about the transmission of the virus."
Although World Health Organization officials said they did not recommend "any ban on international travel," several international airlines—including Emirates, Korean Air, Kenya Airways and British Airways—cancelled flights to affected West African countries and some neighboring countries closed their borders.
But that's unlikely to happen in the U.S., as long as the disease doesn't spread. If this remains an isolated case, said Henry Harteveldt, the co-founder of Atmosphere Research Group, a travel-focused research company, "it will not have an impact on travel."
That's what tourism officials are hoping. A change in travel plans could mean the loss of billions of foreign tourism dollars. In 2013, international travelers spent an estimated $180.7 billion in the U.S., according to the American Hotel & Lodging Association. And data from the Commerce Department shows the country is on track to beat that number in 2014, with international visitors spending between $15 billion and $16 billion per month in the first seven months of the year. (Canada and Mexico send the most tourists to the United States, but some of the biggest spenders come from Brazil, China and India, according to Brand USA, a public-private partnership that markets the country as a tourist destination.)
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The United States has made a successful push in recent years to attract more foreign tourists, who tend to spend more and stay longer in their vacation destinations than domestic travelers do. President Barack Obama set a goal of attracting 100 million international visitors annually by 2021 by increasing marketing efforts, expediting visa processing and taking steps to shorten wait times for passport and customs processing at airports, among other efforts. In a speech in May, he noted that the number of international visitors already has grown from 55 million in 2009 to 70 million in 2013, resulting in the creation of about 175,000 new U.S. jobs.
Global tourism was up 4.6 percent in the first half of this year, according to a UNWTO report issued in September. But when it comes to luring high-spending foreign tourists to the United States, some countries are an easier sell than others. "Friendly" "diverse" and "open-minded" are among the key characteristics of the U.S. cited by potential travelers from most countries. But when Brand USA surveyed Russians about their impression of Americans, the No. 1 answer was "arrogant."
To be fair, the Russians were polled in April, just weeks after President Vladimir Putin recognized Crimea as a sovereign state and President Obama ordered sanctions against Russia. Nonetheless, U.S. tourism marketing officials see Russia as one if its growth areas, along with France, Southeast Asia, Scandinavia and the Benelux countries of Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg, said Chris Thompson, the president of the Brand USA. Efforts up to now have mainly focused on Canada, Mexico, Japan, South Korea, the United Kingdom, Germany, Brazil and Australia.
In addition to opening foreign tourism offices and working to improve the logistics of visiting the United States, Brand USA is currently working to develop an IMAX-style film that would play in 800 foreign theaters and grandly tout the upcoming centennial of the national parks system.
Brand USA, which will disband in September 2015 if Congress does not reauthorize funds for its existence, uses matching funds from industry partners including Air Canada, Air Berlin, Best Western, British Airways, Choose Chicago, Disney, Expedia, Las Vegas tourism, Hilton, Thomas Cook, National Geographic, The Guardian and United Airlines.
Other efforts are also underway to improve the international tourism experience, such as the dual-degree program announced in September between the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University and the China Europe International Business School in Shanghai.
"These graduating students are expected to take executive positions in both U.S. and China-based hospitality, travel and tourism companies," said Rohit Verma, a professor at Cormell and its Singapore Tourism Board Distinguished Professor in Asian Hospitality Management. "They will be uniquely qualified to cater to the needs and preferences from visitors from each country to the other.
— Follow Road Warrior on Twitter at @CNBCtravel.