Quick article summary
- Natural disasters are becoming more common and affecting destinations worldwide
- These same destinations count on tourism dollars to drive a substantial segment of their economies
- Dive deeper into the fine balance between disaster recovery and destination marketing
- Hear first-hand accounts from global destination executives and marketers to learn how they think about disaster recovery:
In early October of 2017, as I sat at my dining room table in New York, my former home of Northern California was going through hell. A series of wildfires, with names like Tubbs, Atlas, and Nuns, ravaged Sonoma County and the surrounding area.
Just three months prior, I had relocated back to New York with my family after spending 8 years in Northern California. My first job in the travel industry was at the time located in beautiful Santa Rosa, California. This city of 175,000, and the largest in Sonoma County, would become the epicenter for the 2017 fire season.
Soon, I was receiving messages from friends in the area who were under evacuation orders.
Then, the unthinkable happened.
Overnight, flames encroached on highly populated neighborhoods and those same friends were fleeing in complete, smoky darkness.
Thankfully, everyone got out – however, some lost everything but their lives.
After the smoke cleared and flames extinguished by some of the bravest firefighters anywhere, the damage was catastrophic.
- 245,000 acres burned
- 8,900 structures destroyed
- 44 lives lost
My friends lived through a literal nightmare, and although generous donations were pouring into the Red Cross and other organizations, more help was needed on the ground.
So I hopped a flight and headed to Santa Rosa, where I arrived about a week after full containment of the last fires.
The scene was incomprehensible.
National Guard vehicles patrolled neighborhoods where friends had lived.
Hospital parking lots turned into staging areas.
Entire neighborhoods were nothing more than burnt tree stumps and chimneys.
I stood side-by-side with National Guardsman and other volunteers and passed out ‘re-entry kits’ to residents who just returned to survey their damage.
The next day, I sorted through boxes of clothing donations at the local Salvation Army. Some people still wore the same clothes they had on when they evacuated.
Is there such thing as ‘too soon?’
Almost immediately after the fires were contained, attention turned towards recovery. After all, Sonoma and Napa counties are home to some of the best wineries in the world, which contribute substantially to the local economy. While a handful of wineries sadly succumbed to the flames, the large majority escaped unscathed, ready for tasters and tours.
But being there at that moment, I started to think about disaster recovery and how destinations thought about the ‘lifecycle’ of a natural disaster.
What is the right balance of disaster recovery and destination marketing?
When is it appropriate for the conversation to turn from ‘we are recovering’ to ‘we are recovered, please come visit?’ Were these even mutually exclusive questions to begin with?
It’s worth mentioning that I am a travel marketer – someone who makes their living promoting tourism. Still, I was personally grappling with this issue.
I’ve revisited these questions multiple times since the 2017 Sonoma fires and thought back to some previous natural disasters that struck a personal chord, such as:
- Earthquakes, Nepal – 2015
- Wildfires in Northern California, 2017-2019
- Hurricane Dorian, Bahamas – 2019
- Wildfires in Australia – 2019/2020
Having traveled to and lived in many of these places, this is an emotionally charged topic for me. I realize that my personal opinion might conflict with my professional one.
So, I decided to talk with colleagues in destination marketing, local government, and tour operations to get their take on this important topic.
Here are their stories of recovery and the approach their destinations took after the unthinkable occurred.
According to Sonoma County Tourism, inbound tourism contributed $2.2 billion to the region’s economy in 2018. What’s more, 22,000 people are employed in tourism related jobs throughout the county.
Todd O’Leary is Vice President of Marketing and Communications for Sonoma County Tourism. During the 2019 fires, Todd and his team made the decision to pause all advertising. He says “In the case of the wildfires, we paused all advertising…during the event to make sure that we weren’t putting visitors in harms way, and also to allow the first responders time and space to do their jobs in keeping people safe.”
It wasn’t until after local residents returned and businesses re-opened that marketing campaigns were again activated.
Todd adds that suppliers and tour operators need to be especially communicative with local DMO’s post disaster. This is relevant on both the operations/logistics and sales/marketing ends of the business. Ultimately, Todd says, it’s “to consider the safety of their customers.”
I also spoke to my former colleague and friend, Amy Ricard, who is a lifetime Sonoma County resident. She also happens to be in charge of community relations for a local Sonoma government agency. She offered a unique perspective as both a local resident, who thankfully was spared by the fires, as well as a government stakeholder. Amy said that “tourism officials are already planning a recovery campaign during the disaster” as they need to “get the message out quickly.”
As a resident, Amy is not at all resentful of tourists visiting right after a disaster. In fact, it’s just the opposite – she’s grateful for the investment since tourism is such a “huge part of the economy here.” However, she did add that opinions may differ among those who lost a home or were directly affected by the disaster.
Tim Zahner, Executive Director at the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau, had a slightly different take on the topic of destination recovery. He believes that there is certainly a concept of ‘too soon’ when it comes to tourists returning to a destination post disaster. For example, Tim said “if there’s active recovery, it’s too soon…hotels need to be used by fire crews.”
Tim added that while the travel industry is quite sensitive to media coverage, the nature of modern-day news cycles means that leisure travelers have short term memories. He mentions that “the average traveler forgets quickly, where locals don’t.”
Regarding the role that operators, activity providers, and other suppliers play in recovery, Tim thinks it all begins with providing accurate information. It’s not productive to say ‘we’re open for business’ when really the destination’s infrastructure is not ready to accept visitors. On the flip side, he says there’s no reason to reference a disaster to potential or current visitors well after the destination has recovered.
To quickly aid small businesses affected by the Sonoma fires, Tim emphasized direct destination spend vs. donating to relief organizations. He said “it’s good to send money, but better to go and visit and spend directly. Travel over-indexes with small businesses that are tied to a place. It’s important to support them to get the economy going again.”
This is especially true in a place like Sonoma County, with culinary, wine, and craft experiences all powered by local entrepreneurs and families who have lived there for generations, in some cases. In fact, 77% of tourism businesses in Sonoma County have 25 employees or fewer.
Fire season has always been a ‘thing’ in California. However, it seems like the frequency and intensity is increasing. Fortunately, in the years following the devastating events of 2017, tourism in Sonoma County has been minimally affected.
Adapting to this new normal might be a fact of life for Sonoma County residents and businesses. One thing that doesn’t change, however, is Sonoma’s resilience, beauty, and the attractiveness of it as a premier destination.
Here’s how Intrepid Travel, the world’s leading sustainable tour operator, describes the impact that tourism has on Nepal:
“It’s hard to overstate just how important tourism is to Nepal. It’s the country’s major export, and the largest source of foreign currency – 800,000 people fly into the mountains each year, and over 40% of those are trekkers. The rupees they spend trickle out to every village, rural teahouse, Kathmandu hotel and gear shop. Over 5% of the population works in the travel industry.”The Intrepid Group, November 2018
I had the honor of visiting Nepal in 2007, spending nearly a month in Kathmandu and the Khumbu Valley while trekking to Everest Base Camp. Nepalese hospitality is something you need to experience at least once. All I can say is that Nepal left an indelible mark on my mind. Perhaps it was the lack of oxygen, but seldom do you visit a country where every person you meet smiles in your direction.
When a devastating 7.8 earthquake struck the country in April of 2015, Intrepid jumped to action, creating the Namaste Nepal campaign. In a matter of hours, donations from all over the world were flowing into The Intrepid Foundation, the company’s non-profit arm.
Tour operators and ground suppliers play a vital role and shoulder much of the responsibility for deciding when, and how, tourism is reintroduced post disaster.
I spoke with Raj Gyawali, the Founding Director of SocialTours, a Kathmandu-based responsible travel tour company, about the local recovery efforts and the timing around them…
I asked Raj if there was such a thing as ‘too soon’ in promoting tourism post disaster. He took a very measured, methodical approach to recovery saying “promotion of tourism is a factor of marketing assets and image of the country, but is also largely about providing information, that builds into the image of a country.”
“what happens post a disaster is that the promotion never stops, but it goes from asset marketing to accurate information…then when the feeling is right, [it] moves back into asset marketing.
How soon can this be done? This largely relies on the disaster that has happened, and how big an impact it’s had on the image of the country being safe…”Raj Gyawali on the communications campaign following Nepal’s earthquakes
Raj believes all tour operators should first communicate with their teams on the ground to obtain accurate information about the situation. He said operators should “not shy away from it. This shows how professional and ethical companies are. If they immediately slash rates and try to grab business, their images can go down the drain!”
Raj added that tour operators should try to band together during the tough times following a disaster as “everyone will be suffering.”
Nepal’s comeback campaign
Tourism to Nepal post-earthquake was in bad shape. The country lost about 70% of business overnight, and the recovery took about two years or so to return to normal.
About a month after the disaster, Raj and his colleagues around Kathmandu realized that tourism would play an outsized role in the recovery efforts.
And so the comeback was launched.
The Nepal Tourism Board started working with nonprofits and NGO’s in attempts to manage the outgoing communications.
They also launched a campaign called: I AM IN NEPAL NOW, which was printed on placards and photographed with travelers who were in fact traveling around Nepal, despite the earthquakes.
Soon, these images went viral.
In the meantime, Raj and a small group of colleagues took to the streets with Go Pros, driving the length of the trip from Kathmandu’s airport to the city center to accurately show the extent of the damage (which was less severe than what the media was reporting).
The Nepalese government finally caught on and provided funding and launched a website to display the stories coming out of Nepal during this difficult time of rebuilding.
Although parts of Nepal were not immediately ready to welcome visitors, it didn’t take long for engineering surveys to certify that popular trekking routes were safe. The attraction of Nepal as an outdoor adventure destination likely helped in the tourism comeback.
While some temples and monuments around Kathmandu took many months or longer to rebuild, the amazing mountain vistas and villages that dot the Himalayan landscape were all too eager to welcome back travelers just as soon as it was safe to do so.
In the years that have passed since the quake, it looks like Raj and the tight-knit Nepalese travel industry have accomplished their mission: total international arrivals were up 25% in 2018.
Tourism and the Bahamas are more inextricably linked that perhaps anywhere else on earth.
Consider these facts:
- About 50% of GDP comes via tourism activity
- 50% of employed Bahamians work in tourism or hospitality
- Over 7 million people traveled to the Bahamas in 2019 (the population is only 385,000)
In October 2019, I took my family to the Bahamas for the first time. We landed in Nassau about six weeks after Hurricane Dorian, a Category 5 storm, tore a destructive path through the neighboring Abaco Islands and Grand Bahama island.
Driving from the airport to the lovely Baha Mar Hotel, I was taken back by the seemingly undisturbed landscape. Roofs were intact, leaves remained on trees, palm trees swayed sturdily in the sea breeze.
During our few days at the Baha Mar, I spoke to numerous hotel employees about Dorian and the recovery efforts.
One woman, an employee working at a Japanese restaurant, said the Abacos were completely devastated – uninhabitable. But, that there was just a ‘bit of wind’ in Nassau and that the Abacos were actually 100 miles away.
Despite this reality, the resort was oddly empty, even for off-season. I couldn’t help but wonder if people had cancelled their travel plans in the wake of Dorian. A few informal chats with the front desk staff confirmed my hunch.
Other than the giant collections jar at check-in, you could have been forgiven for not knowing that the most devastating Atlantic hurricane in modern history passed by a few weeks earlier.
Thankfully, my experience of deserted beaches and plenty of pool chairs did not impact 2019 arrival numbers overall.
According to The Bahamas Ministry of Tourism, 2019 was a banner year, with over 7 million international visitors.
In fact, the Ministry claims that it was the aggressive marketing and PR campaigns that helped to send a cohesive message that ‘the islands of the Bahamas are very much open for business.’
For the good people of the Bahamas, the answer to my question of ‘when is too soon’ is: ‘never.’
There is nowhere I consider home as much as Australia.
I studied abroad in Sydney and returned two years later post-grad to live and work, plus explore every corner of the country. Later in life while working for an Australian company, I returned annually to get my share of sunshine and experience an ever-improving food and drink scene.
The natural wonders throughout the country are some of the most impressive in the world – from the Great Barrier Reef, to the red rocks of Uluru and Kings Canyon, to the waterfalls of Kakadu National Park. Nature in Australia demands your awe, and respect.
While I live in New York, a piece of my heart is still somewhere between Bondi and Coogee beach.
It’s unfair to compare disasters, but context is helpful to understand the scale of what occurred there at the end of 2019 and into early 2020.
As devastating as the 2017 fires in Northern California were, Australians witnessed over 12 million acres of land burn from the recent bushfires.
That’s nearly the size of West Virginia.
Regions like the Blue Mountains, where I used to ‘weekend,’ burned continuously, casting a grim haze on Sydney Harbour.
Still, despite the size and duration of the fires, Australia’s major cities were all spared.
Most of Australia’s iconic tourism destinations were unaffected by fires and are welcoming international travelers as usual.
I spoke to my colleagues at Tourism Australia to get the latest updates on how they were dealing with the recovery and the timing behind it.
While the tourism board initially paused some marketing campaigns as the fires spread, they realized that they would need tourism dollars to quickly recover.
Phillipa Harrison, Tourism Australia’s Managing Director said “with Australia still in its peak summer holiday period, it is crucial that we remind the world that most of the country is open for business.”
She continued “we’re seeing a significant impact on Australian tourism as a significant number of people delay or cancel their travel plans, even to many areas that haven’t been affected. It’s critical that we continue to promote this great country of ours – to support local communities and send a message to the rest of the world that Australia is open for business and still ready to welcome visitors.”
As the final flames were being extinguished, the Australian government pledged $52 million dollars towards the recovery efforts, with $17 million earmarked for international tourism campaigns.
In fact, many of the areas affected by bushfires are already again prepared for tourism. Harrison adds “Areas that have been affected by the bushfires are beginning to rebuild and recover, with many communities and businesses already welcoming visitors back.”
Tourism Australia is currently working with tour operators to create new itineraries focusing on food/wine, coasts, nature, and indigenous cultures.
Many inbound tourists to Australia often keep to the major cities, plus Uluru and the Great Barrier Reef. In some ways, the fires affected domestic tourism around the peak holiday weeks much more than international arrivals.
In this sense, and with the recovery well under way, there is no such thing as ‘too soon’ for Australia. Now is as good a time, or better, as any to explore the land down under.
Closing thoughts on destination disaster recovery
Destinations have a responsibility to promote tourism, but must do so in a sustainable fashion. After a natural disaster, this means engaging even more with local government, relief agencies, business owners, and residents to obtain real-time updates on tourism infrastructure and any security/safety restrictions.
There is no single playbook when it comes to disaster recovery and destination marketing, but some common themes do exist:
- communicate often and accurately
- work with local stakeholders to understand the scale of tourism infrastructure damage
- over-invest in marketing and PR post-disaster, if possible
Despite the cries of over tourism in some of the more major European cities, locals in many destinations do not see tourists as a drain on resources or as insensitive, even after a natural disaster. This is especially true in tourism-dependent islands such as The Bahamas.
Personally, I learned a lot from talking with friends and colleagues across the industry. We’re living in an age where travel has never been more accessible to the masses. Yet, our natural environments are under constant and increasing threats from storms, fires, and the disasters we can’t even predict.
If destinations, and as an extension, the entire industry is to, pardon the pun, ‘weather this storm,’ it will take all of us, from all areas of travel, working hand-in-hand to conscientiously promote tourism to affected areas.