First things first for communities in the path of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma: finish assessing the toll, then set about restoring spirits, properties and businesses.
Make no mistake, the road to recovery will be long for those in the affected areas. However, history teaches that the return to normalcy can be greatly aided by focusing on an economic, as well as physical, recovery. Restoring travel and tourism to the region as soon as feasibly possible, by advertising that the impacted states are open for business, will be extraordinarily helpful to those who have been hurt the most by these storms.
Those who have lost their homes in these disasters cannot afford to lose their jobs, too—but many are at risk of doing so if travelers remain under the impression that the areas recovering from Harvey and Irma’s path are unsafe or unsuitable for visitors. Millions of workers in the highly affected states and territories of Florida, Louisiana, Puerto Rico, Texas and the U.S. Virgin Islands rely on travel and tourism for their jobs—in fact, over 20 percent of American jobs directly supported by travel are in Florida, Louisiana and Texas alone. Let me be clear: hotel housekeepers and bellhops, restaurant and attraction workers, cab drivers and more there need you to keep that meeting and plan that vacation.
Those seeking an example of the tourism impact of a major hurricane—and how tourism helped the region bounce back, stronger than ever before—need look no further than Katrina, in 2005. In 2004, 24.8 million visitors spent $10 billion in Louisiana. Those figures dropped to 19.6 million visitors and $8.2 million in 2005 (Katrina hit in August), then 18.2 million visitors and $6.6 billion in 2006. New Orleans alone lost an average of $15.2 million per day in visitor spending, resulting in an estimated loss of $125 million in state tax revenue and impacting thousands of small businesses.
Then, to compound the region’s long recovery, an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig in April 2010 dumped more than a hundred million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, in the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history. The spill had a massive effect on the environment and severely impacted the economies of the surrounding region.
But ten years after Katrina, New Orleans saw what CNBC described as a “renaissance.” Visitation to Louisiana has nearly doubled to over 46 million visitors annually since its pre-Katrina peak. Reuters said that the Gulf Coast was “a hot destination again” just two years after the BP spill. That was thanks in no small part to the efforts of the Louisiana Office of Tourism and the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, aided by the dedication of both public and private dollars to tourism promotion campaigns in the Gulf coast region.
As a New Orleans CVB spokeswoman told Reuters, and as reams of economic data have proven, tourism doesn’t happen on its own. It takes focused investment on promoting an area as safe and attractive to visitors, especially as a community is rebuilding after a disaster. After the Deepwater Horizon spill, BP sent more than $150 million to Florida, Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi tourism authorities for marketing efforts. Louisiana, and the New Orleans area in particular, stepped up its tourism promotion game in the wake of both Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon spill, focusing more than ever before on restoring their economy by attracting domestic and international visits. Since 2012, Louisiana has set new records each year for visitation, visitor spending and tax revenue generated for the state. From 2012-2016, visitation to Louisiana nearly doubled, and as of 2016, Louisiana visitors spent $16.8 billion annually, bringing over $1 billion tax revenue to further renew, rebuild, and bolster the state.
Right now, as VISIT FLORIDA’s president and CEO recently stated to industry partners, the focus in areas affected by Harvey and Irma should be on safety and restoring life to normal for residents. But as the rebuilding process moves forward, broadly sending the message that the Hurricane-affected areas are open for tourism business can speed a return to economic normalcy.
While not all areas within Florida, Louisiana, Puerto Rico, Texas and the U.S. Virgin Islands will be able to take on visitors right now, many can. Keeping your meetings and planning your vacations to these states and territories is the best way to help its residents bounce back. When the time is right, I encourage community leaders and travel professionals in areas affected by Harvey and Irma to assist by finding a megaphone, taking to the airwaves and inviting travelers to return. This St. Petersburg/Clearwater resident will certainly be doing so in Florida.