The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday passed an lopsided bill that would require TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, to sell the popular video app to non-Chinese owners within six months or risk banning it in the U.S.

Lawmakers — as well as President Joe Biden, who has said he will sign the bill — argue that China’s relationship with ByteDance poses a threat to national security.

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The prospect of TikTok’s 170 million users in the U.S. being banned from the site could have far-reaching ramifications for travel companies looking to boost brand recognition among travelers through the site’s wildly popular short videos.

The travel industry has embraced the site. Among the most followed companies on TikTok are Ryanair with 2.2 million, Expedia and Trip.com with 1.5 million and Booking.com with 1.2 million. When Berlin-based GetYourGuide posted a job posting for a TikTok creator, it garnered so much interest that the digital travel experience market removed it from LinkedIn.

The future of the bill is uncertain in the Senate, where some MPs have opposed it. And even if the bill passes, legal challenges are likely.

What would a TikTok ban mean for travel agencies?

There is precedent for this possibility.

In December 2022, Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin issued an executive order banning the use of TikTok on state government devices and wireless networks. That meant the state’s destination marketing organization, Virginia Tourism, had to delete its accounts.

The incident became something of a case study for Richie Karaburun’s destination marketing and branding course.

“They were actually doing well,” Karaburun, a professor of hospitality and tourism at New York University, said of the WCO. “They had a large following.”

After the ban, Virginia Tourism posted its content on other sites, such as Instagram Reels and YouTube Shorts, which Karaburun expects other travel companies to do if a TikTok ban goes national. But he doesn’t expect it to be easy or as beneficial, especially in the short term.

“TikTok, whether people want to admit it or not, is one of the most effective traffic generators. The engagement rate is one of the highest among Americans compared to others [social media platforms]” he said. ” “It’s really more than an 800-pound gorilla. It’s a very big beast that worked very well.

Madeline List, a researcher at Phocuswright, noted that U.S. travelers who use TikTok don’t typically rely on it exclusively. A study from Phocuswright’s 2023 U.S. Consumer Travel Report found that social media travelers use an average of 2.4 platforms, making it easier for travel agencies to find them, even if they can no longer use TikTok.

“In terms of content strategy, a lot of the content that brands post on TikTok is repurposed for multiple platforms,” List said. “Because vertical and short-form videos have become so popular, I expect many brands to continue to produce content in this style.”

Jared Alster, co-founder and chief strategy officer of tourism marketing agency Dune7, agrees.
“A lot of travel brands and brands in general are repurposing content on social platforms,” Alster said. “However, this is not always recommended, as each platform is optimized for consumers to view content that is uniquely formatted for that platform. But I imagine many companies would just move their TikTok content to Instagram as Reels as a “triage metric” until they come up with a longer-term strategy.

In the longer term, companies may find that some of the qualities offered by TikTok would be difficult to replicate on other sites, List said.

“It’s a platform that fosters research and discoverability,” she said. “You’re seeing videos of small creators explode, even people or brands that arei do not intend to go viral. There are plenty of opportunities for brands, large and small, to reach new audiences through the platform.

Instagram, on the other hand, is known to be less egalitarian in its algorithms, she said. “Profiles with a large number of existing followers are favored, while smaller ones have fewer opportunities to reach new eyes. So building an audience might be more difficult without the platform, especially for smaller brands.

What are the legal issues of banning TikTok?

To justify such a sweeping ban, the government would have to demonstrate a security risk, according to legal experts. U.S. intelligence officials told lawmakers on Tuesday that they “can’t rule out” the possibility that the Chinese government could use TikTok to influence this year’s election.

Corinne Mullen, a New Jersey-based attorney who specializes in First Amendment and internet defamation litigation, called the government’s stance problematic.

“I think you’re going to see filings right away if this becomes law,” she said.

In November, a federal judge blocked a Montana law that sought to ban TikTok in that state.

And on Tuesday, Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute and the American Civil Liberties Union joined 22 other free speech, technology policy and civil liberties organizations in sending a letter of opposition to Congress.

The groups say the ban would violate the First Amendment rights of TikTok users and have called on Congress to pass comprehensive privacy legislation.

The bill “is outright censorship,” the letter said, adding, “Passage of this legislation would trample on the constitutional right to free speech of millions of people in the United States. TikTok is home to massive amounts of protected speech and associations: it allows its users to discuss their opinions, share their hobbies, make art, and access news from the street and around the world. Putting access to the platform at risk jeopardizes access to freedom of expression.

Mullen said users’ use of TikTok as a source of information could make the government’s case even more problematic.

“We’ve never had a situation in the U.S. where Americans have been banned from using a media outlet,” she said. “I understand the rationale for trying to ban it on an official phone. … They have already banned TikTok’s presence on [U.S.] Official business phones. But how they can ban it on private phones is really, really problematic.

How Travel Agencies Could Bypass TikTok’s Ban

Even in the event that a ban becomes law and stands up to a legal challenge, Mullen said she expects U.S. companies to be able to continue using TikTok to market to consumers who can still access the site.

Travel marketing experts agree.

“All kinds of different apps and social sites are banned by various governments around the world,” said Alster of Dune7. “Yet, where there’s a will, there’s a way, and there will always be loopholes for consumers to access TikTok.”

Travel agencies, in particular, are used to adapting to different regulations when crossing government borders, Karaburun said.

“Global companies are used to dealing with these differences,” he said. “They’re saying, ‘Okay, we have to do this for European consumers, we have to do this for Americans.’ It won’t be easy, but they’ll get through it.

Ultimately, however, he believes a ban is a far less likely outcome than failing to get the bill into law or selling TikTok within the timeframe set by lawmakers.

“TikTok won’t be banned [in the U.S.]. It’s too big — 170 million Americans,” he said. “And that’s good for the U.S. economy. So my prediction would be qEven if the Senate passes it, within six months, the problem will be resolved.

Spring: PhocusWire

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