Impact of Natural Disasters on Inbound Tourism

By: Stephen B. Richer, IITA Consultant

In a year when natural disasters have dominated the daily news cycle on a global level for weeks, it is important to understand how the reality of tourism damage— and the news preceding any disaster—can impact inbound tourism.

In late August and early September 2017, the U.S. was hit by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria with media reporting anticipated land fall severity in the maximum Category 5 range in all three cases, building a strong case for travelers to avoid visiting the Texas/west Gulf Coast region due to Hurricane Harvey, and all of Florida, which had been declared a disaster area statewide by Florida Governor Rick Scott, due to Hurricane Irma. Hurricanes Irma and Maria also were projected to hit parts of the Caribbean very hard, including the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

The weeks of media coverage certainly were discouraging to any international travel planners looking at future trips to destinations such as Houston; the Texas Gulf Coast beach communities like Galveston or South Padre Island; New Orleans; the U.S. Virgin Islands; Puerto Rico; and east and west coast Florida destinations, including Miami, Tampa, and the Florida Keys, as well as Orlando.

If your business to these destinations saw a spike in cancellations or modifications to other parts of the country during late summer, please share your stories with us.

After these hurricanes made land fall, there were, of course, severe impacts— particularly around Houston and parts of the Texas Gulf Coast, the southern Florida Keys, and the Caribbean, with Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands taking some of the worst hits, in addition to major damage to other island nations not part of the U.S. Nevertheless, the actual impact did not live up to the extensively frightening projections repeatedly reported throughout weeks of media coverage.

Although the collective damage of these three storms is just approaching the costs of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina alone, its tourism economic impact could be greater, depending on how quickly full recovery is achieved by the most heavily damaged destinations in the southern Florida Keys, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and whether prior cancellations to other parts of Florida and Texas will be re-established.  Some lost business can probably not be recovered. The fact that actual storm damage was less than projected was tempered by the preceding weeks of media analysis consistently predicting that the storms would surpass Hurricane Katrina in level of devastation.

As a result, there are two critical elements to bring about a return to normal inbound travel to these destinations, as will be the case after any future disasters.

The first and most critical is the actual repair and rebuild of damaged destinations, which will be a function of insurance coverage, federal disaster relief efforts led by the Federal Emergency Management Administration, power restoration and infrastructure repair, coordination by local governments and success of charitable efforts. Kudos to Tourism Cares.  IITA members are encouraged to be part of both the fundraising efforts and actual work projects of groups focused on restoration of tourism, particularly Tourism Cares.

Please check out their website (www.tourismcares.org) to see how you can help.

Inbound operators should also speak up to support appropriate funding for federal emergency relief agencies that have already been tested by surpassing budgeted amounts this year.

Secondly, all the tourism marketing entities, including Brand USA, Visit Florida, Texas Tourism, the Caribbean Tourism Organization, the local tourism organizations in the U. S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and the destinations in Florida and Texas impact most or perceived to be impacted the most, must get the word out—consistently and persistently—on actual conditions, what is open, and who is ready to receive visitors.

Sadly, there is always far less coverage post-disaster of areas receiving minimal damage and the recovery process compared with the preliminary analyses of projected destruction prior to a storm or other disaster. This has certainly been the case most recently. But tourism marketing organizations, with the help of inbound operators, can make an impact by shedding light on post-storm realities.

Please remember that IITA has created a space for our members to communicate current circumstances of key destinations, attractions, and properties to their major clients to get the word out and bring tourism back to normal levels.

Natural disasters will be with us forever.  Many analysts suggest that the impact of natural disasters on tourism is even worse than the impact of terrorism.  Having a plan to help restore normal levels of inbound tourism should be part of your tool kit.