What you need to know before returning to tourist sites after disasters

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Bad things can happen to good places.

Like New Orleans, a city forever changed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Or Alabama’s Gulf Coast, peppered by oil pellets after the Deepwater Horizon spill seven years ago. Or Colorado’s Royal Gorge Bridge, which was nearly burned down, along with much of the park, by a wildfire in 2013.

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

This is a good time to ask these questions, with the approaching anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and other, more recent disasters fresh in travelers’ memories. And, 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,” remembers 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,” recalls 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.

When the Gulf oil spill happened in 2010, Spectrum Capital, a commercial developer based in Jackson, Miss., had just completed a luxury condo on Alabama’s Gulf Coast. The project had already weathered an economic downturn, which delayed its completion. But the spill threatened to sink it.

Instead of throwing in the towel, as many other developers in the area did, Spectrum added luxury furnishings to some of its units and put them on the vacation-rental market. It also unveiled a “clean bed guarantee” that promised hotel-like amenities for its customers.

And it worked. Visitors returned, drawn by the favorable room rates and a promise of better hospitality.

“We feel like survivors,” says Spectrum chief executive Jason Voyles.

Disaster can bring out the determination in a place. Consider what happened when a forest fire threatened the Royal Gorge Bridge near Canon City, Colo., in 2013, 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,” says 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 says, “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 scare last year that led to a wave of cancellations — and triggered 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 Zika. More than 70 hotels also signed a “Tourism Industry Mosquito Abatement Pledge” to combat mosquito-borne illnesses.

“Last year, we welcomed a record-breaking 15.7 million overnight visitors,” says William Talbert, president of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau. “And we remain committed to working alongside government partners for ongoing mosquito abatement programs.”

But perhaps the best reason to return is that your tourism dollars can really make a difference. They did for Estes Park, Colo., which was hit by a flood in 2013 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,” remembers 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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