Places that have endured natural disasters or violent incidents face a downturn in visitors, but travelers can help these communities rebound by putting their tourist dollars to work.
The idea of the Great American Summer Vacation may conjure up images of a camping adventure complete with roasted s’mores (cue the delicately strummed John Denver music fireside) or a part Kerouac-inspired, Grisworldesque family road trip with highway-side attractions and greasy-spoon diners thrown in.
But in a year where so much of the country and its territories have faced hardship— whether Houston by floods, Puerto Rico by hurricanes, Las Vegas by the shooting, Charlottesville by the demonstrations, or Napa and Sonoma by fires—many travel experts are suggesting that the true American summer trip entails strategic visits to the places that have been hit the worst.
And whether you’re rolling up your sleeves and actively volunteering or simply pouring money into the community at hotels and restaurants, those in beleaguered locations will be grateful for the help in getting back on their feet. What’s more, for savvy travelers planning domestic trips between Memorial Day and Labor Day, these destinations can provide the most meaningful experiences and best deals.
Andrew Cohan, managing director of hospitality consultancy Horwath HTL in Miami, said he’s come to view this type of booking as a “patriotic duty.”
Call it, ‘America YIMBY—yes, in my back yard,” said Dr. Michael Oshins, associate professor at Boston University’s School of Hospitality Administration. “The money pumped back into the economies help many of the people who need it the most—front line employees, entrepreneurs, and all the workers who supply these hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions.
He dubbed this practice “travel with a conscience.”
Places that have been hit by a natural disaster or experienced a dangerous episode suffer a double whammy—the costly damage and reduced tourism dollars. But visitors who venture these areas are doubly-blessed: they see their money have an altruistic impact, and they get more interesting experiences.
That’s the mindset that motivated Devon Hillard O’Connell, PR manager for The Resort at Pelican Hill in Newport Coast, Calif., who traveled north to Sonoma as a tourist in December just weeks after fires ravaged the area.
“The weekend was a very intentional show of support to bring some money back to their economy,” Hillard O’Connell said. The highlight, she said, was a visit to the Fire & Wine Cave Tour at Gundlach Bundschu, California’s oldest winery. The vineyard has embraced the history of California fires and helps to educate tourists on the region’s resiliency when facing natural disasters, like the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire.
The tour ended in a barrel-aging cave with a toast to Sonoma’s heroes, including the firefighters of today. Taking part in this timely tribute became a unique and moving part of Hillard O’Connell’s itinerary and a reminder of how important it was for her to take this trip.
“Sonoma and Napa’s successful recovery relies on not only insurance adjusters and construction crews, but also foodies and wine enthusiasts willing to invest their travel dollars in the success of their tourism industry,” Hillard O’Connell said.
This kind of tale is not limited to California, of course. Sher, a noted New York City-based travel photographer who only uses her first name and blogs at Sher She Goes, recently had a one of-a-kind travel experience in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of a brutal 2017 hurricane season.
Some 100 hotels and more than 4,000 restaurants across the island are operational, and in fact, she was able to get something of a more authentic experience amid the island’s hardships. Because of a propane shortage, restaurants have changed their menus to cater to local residents who have increasingly shifted to eating out, Sher said.“This means much more lively restaurants with local flair, live salsa bands, and fun twists on classic foods like mofongo,” she said.
Puerto Rico is as vibrant as ever, said Steve Jermanok, a Boston-based travel advisor at ActiveTravels, who happened to be in San Juan on sunny day in February to “support the locals as tourism and other infrastructure swings back to life.”
“You would never know a hurricane hit San Juan so badly, except for cobblestone streets that should be more crowded,” he said. “We just took a wonderful stroll to the historic fort, El Morro, overlooking the pounding waves of the Atlantic; visited the colorful homes of La Perla, where they filmed the video for the hit song ‘Despacito’; and now I’m having a local Ocean Lab Amber Ale at one of the bars in Old Town.”
Jermanok said American travelers should challenge themselves this summer to have these kinds of experiences in Puerto Rico and other places that have faced difficulties.
“It’s imperative that we support the places hardest hit by tragedies sooner rather than later,” he added. “I’ve always been a firm believer of this, supporting New York after 9/11 and NOLA after Katrina. The best way to support all those jobs in travel is to visit and then promote through all our social media channels.”
Some tourists are hesitant to head to places that have faced natural disasters because they fear power-outages or infrastructure challenges. But some healthy peer-pressure from visitors and local authorities and experts can help potential visitors understand that a location is open for business even as it’s in need of help.
“Whenever destinations are affected by an environment crisis, such as the floods in Houston and the hurricanes in Puerto Rico, it is crucial that the public and private sectors work together to communicate efficiently with travelers and to avoid a sharp disruption in arrival numbers,” said Rochelle Turner, research director at the Word Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC).
Of course, some travelers take a more active approach in the rebuilding process by restoring houses or schools in addition to enjoying a place’s tourist attractions.
Christopher Hill, founder of altruistic minded luxury trip designer Hands Up Holidays, sees this voluntourism as a smart way to teach lessons while traveling.
“This type of trip is especially popular with families: parents who want to instill the values of serving and giving back in their children, and who want to inspire them to become future world changers,” Hill said.
Introducing this travel philosophy by visiting devastated areas this summer and lending a helping hand can also make for a more memorable experience as a result.
“Our core premise is that vacations are made more meaningful when you help to rebuild a hard-hit area,” Hill said. “And yes, our guests feel inspired when they interact with the communities that are showing grit and determination to get on with their lives.”
That kind of purpose-driven trip is popular with the new generation of travelers.
“The mid-to-older millennial has a keen sense of ‘doing good’ and deliberately incorporates that aspect of ‘feeling good’ into his or her travel plans,” said Leora Halpern Lanz, principal of LHL Communications and a lecturer at Boston University’s School of Hospitality Administration. “A sense of social responsibility and civic mindedness is keen to this generation of traveler.”
And in the age of Airbnb, where travelers are craving local authenticity over canned tourism, this act of engaging with a community and becoming part of it has appeal.
“There are less people interested in sitting on a beach at a nice hotel and getting pampered, said Glenn Hollister, the travel and transportation practice lead at Evanston, Ill.-based consulting firm ZS.
Even for those not inclined to get their hands dirty this summer, just showing up is enough.
Rather than donating to charities, Dana DuTerroil, cofounder of Houston-based tour company Trip Chandler, says it’s easier to ensure your dollars are truly helping if you travel directly to a hard-hit place.
“Why visit?” DuTerroil said. “People are often concerned that monetary donations go to running an organization rather than actual people in need. If you visit Houston and patronize local businesses, from taco trucks to James Beard restaurants, you are contributing to the on-going relief effort.”
And it’s not just about money, but morale as well.
“Visiting also generates a feel-good effect to know a non-resident chose to visit your city for a vacation—that recognition boosts the collective self-esteem of a city,” DuTerroil added.
That sentiment is particularly important for places like Las Vegas, where last year’s October 1 shooting from a suite at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino killed 58 people. The city visitor volume dropped by 4.2% in October, or 115,114 people, compared to October 2016, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA). Hotels on the Las Vegas Strip had 171,285 unpaid room nights in October, 4% worse than that month the previous year, and represented a total revenue loss of some $26,076,428.
“There is no magic formula that predicts how fast a destination bounces back,” said Dr. Carolin Lusby, assistant professor of the business of hospitality at Florida International University. “Some destinations such as Paris after the terror attacks have been proven to have a certain resiliency.”
The violent incident in Vegas has not had a lasting effect on tourism to the city, but it takes committed visitors to show solidarity with the community and erase the stigma of danger. It’s important for travelers to visit Vegas to see Boyz II Men in concert this summer at The Mirage, hit the craps table at Bellagio, or enjoy a meal at Aureole in Mandalay Bay to maintain the tourist momentum and not give way to fear.
Same goes for Charlottesville, which saw violent clashes between White supremacists and Black Lives Matter demonstrators in August. Tourist visits to Monticello, the University of Virginia’s Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection, or area vineyards can help Charlottesville maintain normalcy and avoid further hardship.
Traveling to hard-hit areas in need is also an intelligent idea for the bargain-minded traveler.
“These communities are also offering specials, discounts and opportunities,” Boston University’s Oshins said. “So, by traveling to the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, etc., not only do you help by injecting revenues into their communities … but you also can both feel good and get a good deal—doing well by doing good.”
Case in point: after firefighters and community volunteers helped save Ojai, Calif. from the recent wildfires, the local hospitality industry decided to raise money for those affected. The hotels are offering special Ojai Love room packages, which offer 10% discounts on rooms and a $10 donation per night made in the guest’s name to recovery efforts. Guests will also receive a 10% discount voucher to use a local restaurants and retailers to help them rebound.
Houston will have a lot to offer summer visitors as it continues to return to a state of normalcy, with deals at billionaire Tilman Fertitta’s new hotel, The Post Oak, that includes state’s first Mastro’s Steakhouse.
Buellton, located 10 miles from Santa Barbara in the heart of the Santa Ynez Valley Wine County, suffered early this year as heavy downpours pounded the region and caused flooding, mud and debris slides, and downed trees. But the area is offering great glamping discounts at Flying Flags RV Resort with nine renovated vintage Airstreams.
Fred Ackerman, founder of San Francisco-based Black Sheep Adventures, Inc., operates hike, bike, and rail tours around the world but has seen a drop off in bookings for his California offerings in Napa and Sonoma, Big Sur, and Santa Barbara amid the fires and mudslides. And though some may view the deals as icing on the cake, he stressed the importance of keeping the significance of travel to these hurt communities in perspective.
“I think it’s a huge win-win if people actively stop and consider the positive impact potential of where they vacation,” he said. “Travelers can really make a difference by visiting an impacted region, thus enjoying their visit on a much deeper level.”
By Ross Kenneth Urken