How to avoid calamity when vis­it­ing a for­mer dis­as­ter area.

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - El­liott is a con­sumer ad­vo­cate, jour­nal­ist and co-founder of the ad­vo­cacy group Trav­el­ers United. Email him at chris@el­ CHRISTO­PHER EL­LIOTT

Bad things can hap­pen to good places.

Like New Or­leans, a city for­ever changed by Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina in 2005. Or Alabama’s Gulf Coast, pep­pered by oil pel­lets af­ter the Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon spill seven years ago. Or Colorado’s Royal Gorge Bridge, which was nearly burned down, along with much of the park, by a wild­fire in 2013.

But when is it safe to go back, and when does it make sense to book your next va­ca­tion there?

This is a good time to ask these ques­tions, with the ap­proach­ing an­niver­sary of Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina and other, more re­cent dis­as­ters fresh in trav­el­ers’ mem­o­ries. And, as it turns out, you can plan your next va­ca­tion sooner than you think and also help a dam­aged des­ti­na­tion with­out ex­ploit­ing it.

“Ka­t­rina brought us to our knees,” re­mem­bers Sean Cum­mings, a New Or­leans en­tre­pre­neur who owns the In­ter­na­tional House, a bou­tique ho­tel in the city’s cen­tral busi­ness dis­trict. “When the storm hit us, we knew we had to do more than just re­build. We had to rein­vent our­selves.”

For the Cres­cent City, part of that rein­ven­tion meant dou­bling down on its com­mit­ment to hos­pi­tal­ity.

Howard Leven­thal and his wife, Lois, vis­ited from New Jersey in April 2006, just a few months af­ter the dis­as­ter. “We found the ser­vice to be wel­com­ing, friendly and ex­cel­lent at the ho­tels and res­tau­rants that we vis­ited,” re­calls Leven­thal, a re­tired math teacher. Tourists like the Leven­thals ben­e­fited from lower prices, post-Ka­t­rina — and rel­ished the op­por­tu­nity to help a city on the mend.

When the Gulf oil spill hap­pened in 2010, Spec­trum Cap­i­tal, a com­mer­cial de­vel­oper based in Jack­son, Miss., had just com­pleted a lux­ury condo on Alabama’s Gulf Coast. The project had al­ready weath­ered an eco­nomic down­turn, which de­layed its com­ple­tion. But the spill threat­ened to sink it.

In­stead of throw­ing in the towel, as many other de­vel­op­ers in the area did, Spec­trum added lux­ury fur­nish­ings to some of its units and put them on the va­ca­tion-rental mar­ket. It also un­veiled a “clean bed guar­an­tee” that promised ho­tel-like ameni­ties for its cus­tomers.

And it worked. Vis­i­tors re­turned, drawn by the fa­vor­able room rates and a prom­ise of bet­ter hos­pi­tal­ity.

“We feel like sur­vivors,” says Spec­trum chief ex­ec­u­tive Ja­son Voyles.

Dis­as­ter can bring out the de­ter­mi­na­tion in a place. Con­sider what hap­pened when a for­est fire threat­ened the Royal Gorge Bridge near Canon City, Colo., in 2013, burn­ing many build­ings and tak­ing out an aerial tram over the gorge.

In re­sponse to that blaze and an­other wild­fire in 2012, tourism of­fi­cials not only quickly re­paired the dam­age but they also launched an am­bi­tious “wel­come back” cam­paign to en­cour­age peo­ple to visit the re­gion and give the Royal Gorge Bridge & Park an­other chance af­ter nearly the en­tire at­trac­tion was re­built.

“I think peo­ple feel more ful­filled with this type of va­ca­tion, be­cause they re­al­ize they are mak­ing a di­rect dif­fer­ence in a lo­cal ho­tel, prop­erty, restau­rant or at­trac­tion,” says Chelsy Of­futt, a spokes­woman for the Colorado Springs Con­ven­tion & Vis­i­tors Bu­reau. “They feel a sense of pride and own­er­ship when things start to re­build or come back to life.”

Tourism of­fi­cials say there’s a fine line be­tween vis­it­ing a des­ti­na­tion im­me­di­ately af­ter a tragedy — that’s called dis­as­ter tourism, and it’s not pretty — and go­ing some­where to sup­port it. But the re­wards can be con­sid­er­able, ac­cord­ing to Vesna Plaka­nis, who runs a guide ser­vice in the Smoky Moun­tains called A Walk in the Woods. Wild­fires rav­aged the area last year, which hurt their busi­ness and those of thou­sands of other ven­dors near the park.

“You not only ben­e­fit from the feel-good of eco­nom­i­cally sup­port­ing an area that has been hard hit by a dis­as­ter,” she says, “you also are likely to find great deals, be­cause ho­tels and other busi­nesses of­fer dis­counts to at­tract trav­el­ers.”

An­other bonus: Smaller crowds, which means a more in­ti­mate ex­pe­ri­ence, even dur­ing high sea­son.

Tragedy can also make a des­ti­na­tion down­right chatty. Al­most with­out ex­cep­tion, the ar­eas hit by dis­as­ters found a new voice in the af­ter­math, speak­ing out on so­cial me­dia and via ad cam­paigns to let ev­ery­one know when it was safe to re­turn.

That’s even true for Mi­amiDade County in Florida, which was hit by a Zika scare last year that led to a wave of can­cel­la­tions — and trig­gered the in­evitable ho­tel dis­counts. Tourism of­fi­cials, at first, didn’t want to talk about Zika, but they changed their tune as the num­ber of cases mul­ti­plied. Mi­ami launched a pub­lic-aware­ness cam­paign, called “Fight the Bite,” to keep prospec­tive vis­i­tors in­formed about Zika. More than 70 ho­tels also signed a “Tourism In­dus­try Mos­quito Abate­ment Pledge” to com­bat mos­quito-borne ill­nesses.

“Last year, we wel­comed a record-break­ing 15.7 mil­lion overnight vis­i­tors,” says Wil­liam Tal­bert, pres­i­dent of the Greater Mi­ami Con­ven­tion & Vis­i­tors Bu­reau. “And we re­main com­mit­ted to work­ing along­side govern­ment part­ners for on­go­ing mos­quito abate­ment pro­grams.”

But per­haps the best rea­son to re­turn is that your tourism dol­lars can re­ally make a dif­fer­ence. They did for Estes Park, Colo., which was hit by a flood in 2013 that in­un­dated the main road­ways to Rocky Moun­tain Na­tional Park.

“We heard from so many vis­i­tors that they had trav­eled to Estes Park and Rocky Moun­tain Na­tional Park mul­ti­ple times since they were chil­dren,” re­mem­bers El­iz­a­beth Fog­a­rty, pres­i­dent of Visit Estes Park. “And be­cause of this con­nec­tion, they felt an at­tach­ment and pas­sion for the area.”

Peo­ple re­turned be­cause they loved the park and wanted to see it again. That’s the most im­por­tant part of come­back tourism: the com­ing back part. It’s an op­por­tu­nity for vis­i­tors to ap­pre­ci­ate a des­ti­na­tion they may have taken for granted — and for a des­ti­na­tion to ap­pre­ci­ate the vis­i­tors they may have taken for granted.

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