Orlando is having a bad week. A very bad week.
America’s number-one tourism destination has suffered a series of tragedies whose aftershocks could be felt for months, and perhaps years, and may have wider repercussions on the U.S. tourism industry.
- The Magic City’s troubles began June 10 when singer Christina Grimmie was shot and killed by a gunman after a concert. Her assailant, identified as 27-year-old Kevin Loibl, shot himself during an ensuing struggle.
- On June 12, Omar Mateen, a security guard from Port St. Lucie, Fla., opened fire in a gay nightclub in Orlando, killing 49 people. FBI officials called the massacre an act of terrorism and a hate crime, and have asked the public for help in determining his exact motives.
- Only a few days later, two-year-old Lane Graves of Elkhorn, Neb., visiting Walt Disney World with his parents Matt and Melissa Graves, was snatched by an alligator as he splashed around in a lagoon. The boy’s body was recovered the next day only a few feet from where he’d been taken.
The reaction from the Orlando tourism industry has been swift and sympathetic.
“There are no words to convey the profound sorrow we feel for the family and their unimaginable loss,” George Kalogridis, Walt Disney World Resort’s president, said. “We are devastated and heartbroken by this tragic accident and are doing what we can to help the family during this difficult time.”
George Aguel, the president for Visit Orlando, says the destination is doing all it can to reassure travelers that it’s safe.
“The safety of our visitors has, and continues to be, the top priority of the Orlando community,” he said. “Our tourism industry has been working closely with the authorities to coordinate efforts, share information and enhance the already strong foundation our tourism corridors have in place.”
“Continuously evolving” measures
Tourism is Orlando’s lifeblood. In 2015, a record 66 million visitors came to the city, a number that includes in-state, out-of-state and international visitors, according to the CVB. By that measure, Orlando is the number-one destination in Florida and in the United States.
In reaction to the crisis, the CVB updated and expanded safety information on Visit Orlando’s consumer website. Tourism authorities have also briefed their phone representatives to answer any security questions and invited prospective visitors to ask questions via its site and email address [email protected].
“Tourism entities and local authorities have always worked closely and have a comprehensive approach to create a safe environment for the millions of visitors that we host each year,” says Aguel. “These measures continuously evolve, including a greater focus on prevention, technological advances and information sharing capabilities.
Disney closed all of its beach resorts and recreational marinas after the alligator attack. Although a resort representative did not respond to questions about the company’s long-term plans for ensuring guest safety, another Disney employee, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the company planned a “thorough review” of its security in the wake of the incident.
So far, officials say they haven’t seen any change to visitors’ plans. Aguel says it would be “premature” to speculate on future visitation trends.
“What we have seen is an incredible outpouring of support from people all over the world – for Orlando as a community as well as a cherished travel destination,” he says.
But tourism experts are not as confident. Canceling a vacation on short notice is difficult, given the restrictive airline and hotel cancellation policies. It’s far likelier that would-be visitors might consider another place to spend Thanksgiving, Christmas or spring break.
“I think they may weigh a theme park vacation a little differently, in light of what has happened,” says Elizabeth Blount McCormick, president of Uniglobe Travel Designers, a Columbus, Ohio, travel agency. “The world is a scary place.”
McCormick says she hasn’t seen any Orlando cancellations yet, but summer is typically a slower time for Orlando visits. It’s possible — although no one knows for certain — that demand for hotel rooms and theme park tickets may soften during the next few months.
It’s even harder to predict how international visitors might react to the triple tragedy. If Orlando is able to control the narrative on these unfortunate incidents, it could avoid the stigma that places like Newtown, Conn., Blacksburg, Va., or Columbine, Colo., suffered in the aftermath of the mass shootings that happened there. Barring another Central Florida disaster, the destination could survive almost unscathed.
“This is no different than Paris and the ensuing loss of travel and tourism which has hurt the hotels and other venues,” says Frances Kiradjian, founder of the Boutique & Lifestyle Lodging Association. “However, they are coming back as the travel industry has touted the many amazing things the destination has to offer as well as the fact that now is a good time to visit as there are more value offers and discounts available than ever before for flights and hotels.”
If there’s a consensus, it’s that last week’s events will affect demand, possibly leading to some discounting. That may present be an opportunity for visitors who couldn’t afford a theme park vacation this year, but it won’t be anything on the order of the fire sales held in Orlando 15 years ago.