Natural Disasters Might Have Major Impact on Inbound Travel

By: Stephen B. Richer

Our hearts go out to those affected by natural disasters in recent weeks, whether hurricanes in Texas, Florida and the southeast, and the Caribbean or fires in the Pacific Northwest. To offer support to our members in those areas, we created a Resource Page on our website with links to sites that can provide operators and the travel trade with the latest information in the affected areas.

One needs only to observe media in the United States to understand how natural disasters can dominate the news.  Many countries, who might have growing economies, improving government services, and excellent tourism attractions and services, will usually see very limited media coverage–particularly in a big nation like the United States with so much national news–unless there are occurrences of natural disasters, huge accidents, or–worse–incidents of terrorism.  In recent years, all of us can recall examples of major storms, airplane crashes, and suicide bombings which fit this description of major media coverage.

The past few weeks have put North America into the view of global media attention, thanks to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, as well as a record breaking earthquake impacting three states in Mexico and fires in the Pacific Northwest.  Key tourism destinations and lots of airports have been dramatically impacted by all this media coverage.  It is certain that a lot of business has been altered or lost.

International media, including television, the internet, and newspapers worldwide, have told the international travel trade and its customers that Florida, Texas, the Atlanta airport, other adjacent states, numerous Caribbean destinations, and a big portion of Mexico are all unsafe or impossible to visit right now.  This is also impacting the cruise industry.  Do not expect the same level of coverage to be offered when, whether it is in the near term or months from now, things are back to normal.

At this writing, international audiences are still being told that all of Florida is not ready for its own residents, let alone visitors, to come to its cities, the Florida Keys are “closed,” thousands of flights have been cancelled in Atlanta, and other storms, such as Hurricane Jose, are churning off the coast of the United States and could possibly strike our nation.

What does all of this mean to inbound tour operators and how can remedies be offered to prevent unnecessary loss of business?

It is certainly valid to attempt to move existing business to other destinations or postpone scheduled departures to preserve business, which are the most likely steps being taken by IITA operators.

The bigger challenge is how to update literally billions of impressions tied to these natural disasters to preserve and grow future business.

Inbound operators play a big part in the strategies needed to reverse all of these impressions.  Working with DMOs, including Brand USA, operators can offer tour services in order to host international media and key international outbound operators to show them when destinations are once again easily visitable and ready to receive tourists.

An excellent strategy is putting actual video images online of destinations included in tour packages on both DMO and inbound tour operator websites.  Dated video images are among the best tools with which to counteract weeks of broadcasts and articles on the impending and then actual devastation.  This needs to start as soon as there is some level of normal circumstances. Actual images are the most believable.  In the past, Florida destinations erected live cameras on the beach, so prospective visitors could watch the conditions in real time.

Very importantly, truth matters most at this juncture. Do not ask visitors to return, unless they are perhaps volunteers to aid in a recovery, until it is appropriate to ask them to do so.  If this principle is violated, it can damage the reputation of either a destination or private business which promises an unimpeded experience before it is possible.

In the very short term, inbound operators can play a big role through organizations like Tourism Cares, the Caribbean Tourism Organization, and other groups concerned with restoring tourism by offering assistance to programs already announced.  More adventurous inbound operators can assist by developing “voluntourism” packages for people who want to be of assistance in impacted areas, but it is advised to only do so, if it is coordinated by working with agencies who can manage such volunteers, have work to be done, and have identified housing to accommodate such visitors.  Most affected destinations will put such coordinators in place in very short order.

Once again, IITA wants to hear from you on how your business has been impacted by these recent natural disasters or if you have historic information on how your business was impacted in the past.  Such information can add to the national discussion on how to bring back normal business flow once it is warranted. Email us at headquarters@inboundtravel.org or post on our Facebook Page.