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Jan. 02--With international visitation to the U.S. continuing to decline, travel industry leaders say they plan to form a coalition of American businesses to send the message that the country welcomes foreign tourists.

In the first six months of the year, international visitors to the U.S. dropped 4% to 41 million visitors compared to the same period in 2016, according to the latest data from the National Travel and Tourism Office. It marks a change of direction for visitation numbers, which had been surging for a few years.

Travel leaders have placed part of the blame for the decline on Donald Trump, who launched his presidential campaign by criticizing immigrants from Mexico and later pushed for a ban on travel from several largely Muslim countries.

Other experts attribute the slowdown to the strength of the U.S. dollar compared to many foreign currencies and new security measures on air travel to the U.S.

International travelers generated $246 billion in spending in 2016 according to the U.S. Travel Assn., the trade group for the nation's travel industry. About half of all foreign visitors to the U.S. come from Mexico and Canada, with the rest coming from Europe, Japan, China and Brazil, among other countries.

Jonathan Grella, executive vice president of public affairs for the U.S. Travel Assn., said the declining visitor numbers are an "undeniable wake-up call that we must turn this into a national priority."

The trade group plans to launch a coalition with other U.S. industries, called "Visit USA," he said. The goal is to send the message that the U.S. welcomes international visitors, Grella said, adding that the travel group plans to announce details of the coalition in the next few weeks.

He declined to blame Trump's anti-immigration diatribes for the decline in visitors but said "a very big portion of the coalition's work is to promote more balanced rhetoric."

"We want to get to the place that the administration says we are closed for terrorism but open for business," Grella said.

A representative for the White House didn't respond to a request for comment.

hugo.martin@latimes.com

To read more about the travel and tourism industries, follow @hugomartin on Twitter.

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