Recovering Tourism Dollars After a Natural Disaster
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Recovering Tourism After a Natural Disaster

By Laura Burkehart 07/09/2019

Nothing is quite so devastating to an area largely dependent on tourism than a natural disaster. While preparations can be made and safety issues can be addressed quickly and diligently, the aftermath is often long-lasting and severe.

Like any other destination, California is no stranger to natural devastations. In the past few years, the state has contended with the effects of a cataclysmic drought, ferocious wildfires and destructive mudslides. And ever in the back of everyone’s mind — when is the next major earthquake?

Despite all these risks and events, tourists continue to flock to the storied California landscapes. Yet recovery from a natural disaster is a long and arduous process, and the money from visitors can be the lynchpin of a business's success or failure and the speed of an impacted region's recovery. Even after recovery is well underway, the ripple effects from a disaster continue. For example, tourists may fear widespread damage leading to reduced options and amenities, loss of activities and scenery they’d planned to enjoy, or additional danger and instability during their planned stay.

So how can tourism markets and industries draw visitors back after a devastating and highly publicized event?

Following the recovery in places like Japan, where a 9.1 magnitude earthquake followed by a tsunami demolished large swaths of the country in 2011, can offer clues to regaining tourism numbers. Post-disaster, Japan invited travel agents and media to see firsthand that tourist areas were still intact and ready for visitors. Most major strategies for recovery there and around the world have included strong social media campaigns to reassure potential visitors that areas are safe and still beautiful.

Forming coalitions to assist in both rebuilding and revamping the tourism industry have been effective. In Japan, the UN’s World Tourism Organization and the Pacific Asian Travel Association worked together to provide support for the industry. Domestically, California, Oregon and Washington joined forces to form the West Coast Tourism Recovery Coalition. The WCTRC website promotes trips in each state and offers sources for up-to-date information on conditions. 

The best way forward for hospitality establishments is to quickly spread the word that they are up and running and open for business. For example, Visit California immediately addressed concerns about the recent July 2019 earthquakes on the Travel Alerts page of its consumer-facing site.

Leaning into social media, especially posting images and videos, is a quick and easy way to show potential tourists current conditions. Working together with industry partners to develop plans to spur rebuilding and growth—and keeping tour operators from leaving the area—is invaluable. Communication is the key to bringing in the resources and dollars that lead to a full recovery.

Destinations can also make use of Visit California's Crisis Evaluation Matrix, which allows a crisis team to evaluate and quantify a situation through a tourism lens to better react and respond in supporting affected communities. Visit California's Vice President of Communications, Ryan Becker, notes that "understanding the facts is critical – including tone and frequency of media coverage, online conversations and sentiment, the spread of misinformation and how the crisis is shaping the perception of an area’s safety and accessibility. By assigning numerical values to a series of criteria, those benchmarks can track how a crisis evolves in severity, and determine the need and scale of a response plan."

Lastly, the travel industry’s first priority should be to unify the community during healing — and to restore the destinations’ reputation and their critical tourism economies that are on the line. For example, Visit California took action with a sweeping and impactful PSA, "The Power of Love," featuring a number of celebrities and politicians to increase outreach and assist in recovery and held a number of tourism recovery forums throughout the state. (View the meeting held in Lake County here.)

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