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When is it OK for tourists to return after a disaster?

Estes Park, Colo., shortly after flooding abated in

Estes Park, Colo., shortly after flooding abated in 2013. Credit: Alamy / Ed Endicott

Bad things can happen to good places.

Just look at the tourist-friendly islands of the Caribbean or the coastal vacation magnets of southern Florida, all hammered by Hurricane Irma this month.

When is it safe to go back, and when does it make sense to book your next vacation there?

As it turns out, you can plan your next vacation sooner than you think and also help a damaged destination without exploiting it.


“Katrina brought us to our knees,” remembered Sean Cummings, a New Orleans entrepreneur who owns the International House, a boutique hotel in the city’s central business district. “When the storm hit us, we knew we had to do more than just rebuild. We had to reinvent ourselves.”

For the Crescent City, part of that reinvention meant doubling down on its commitment to hospitality.

Howard Leventhal and his wife, Lois, visited from New Jersey in April 2006, just a few months after the disaster. “We found the service to be welcoming, friendly and excellent at the hotels and restaurants that we visited,” recalled Howard Leventhal, a retired math teacher. Tourists like the Leventhals benefited from lower prices, post-Katrina — and relished the opportunity to help a city on the mend.

Disaster can bring out the determination in a place. Consider what happened when a 2013 forest fire threatened the Royal Gorge Bridge near Canon City, Colorado, burning many buildings and taking out an aerial tram over the gorge.

In response to that blaze and another wildfire in 2012, tourism officials not only quickly repaired the damage but they also launched an ambitious “welcome back” campaign to encourage people to visit the region and give the Royal Gorge Bridge & Park another chance after nearly the entire attraction was rebuilt.

“I think people feel more fulfilled with this type of vacation, because they realize they are making a direct difference in a local hotel, property, restaurant or attraction,” said Chelsy Offutt, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau. “They feel a sense of pride and ownership when things start to rebuild or come back to life.”


Tourism officials say there’s a fine line between visiting a destination immediately after a tragedy — that’s called disaster tourism, and it’s not pretty — and going somewhere to support it. But the rewards can be considerable, according to Vesna Plakanis, who runs a guide service in the Smoky Mountains called A Walk in the Woods. Wildfires ravaged the area last year, which hurt their business and those of thousands of other vendors near the park.

“You not only benefit from the feel-good of economically supporting an area that has been hard hit by a disaster,” she said, “you also are likely to find great deals, because hotels and other businesses offer discounts to attract travelers.”

Another bonus: smaller crowds, which means a more intimate experience, even during high season.

Tragedy can also make a destination downright chatty. Almost without exception, the areas hit by disasters found a new voice in the aftermath, speaking out on social media and via ad campaigns to let everyone know when it was safe to return.

That’s even true for Miami-Dade County in Florida, which was hit by a Zika virus scare last year that led to a wave of cancellations, triggering the inevitable hotel discounts. Tourism officials at first didn’t want to talk about Zika, but they changed their tune as the number of cases multiplied. Miami launched a public-awareness campaign, called Fight the Bite, to keep prospective visitors informed about the Zika virus. More than 70 hotels also signed a Tourism Industry Mosquito Abatement Pledge to combat mosquito-borne illnesses.


Perhaps the best reason to return is that your tourism dollars can really make a difference. They did for Estes Park, Colorado, which in 2013 was hit by a flood that inundated the main roadways to Rocky Mountain National Park.

“We heard from so many visitors that they had traveled to Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park multiple times since they were children,” recalled Elizabeth Fogarty, president of Visit Estes Park. “And because of this connection, they felt an attachment and passion for the area.”

People returned because they loved the park and wanted to see it again. That’s the most important part of comeback tourism: the coming back part. It’s an opportunity for visitors to appreciate a destination they may have taken for granted — and for a destination to appreciate the visitors they may have taken for granted.

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