As an international tourist destination, Orlando copes with tragedies’ aftermath

Eva Dickerson’s recent Orlando visit ended on a less-than-magical note.

Her family vacation coincided with the shocking murder there of singer Christina Grimmie. Over the next few days, the worst mass shooting in U.S. history left 49 dead at a packed Orlando nightclub, and an alligator attacked and killed a young guest at a Walt Disney World resort.

“What a terrible trio of events,” said Dickerson, who works for a school in Sierra Vista, Ariz.

The tragedies have a broad personal resonance because so many people have visited Orlando, many of them more than once. The theme-park capital of the world, with 66 million visitors last year, is the No. 1 destination in Florida and one of the most popular vacation sites in the country.

This is a confusing time for the city and its guests. Is Orlando still a safe place to visit? And if it’s possible to discern the long-term outlook for the city, how should you adjust your plans?

Many visitors, Dickerson among them, say they won’t let the disasters stop them from returning. “We will not hesitate to visit Orlando again,” she said. “We are not deterred by the events that have recently unfolded.”

Michelle Weller, vice president of sales and customer service with a Travel Leaders franchise in Houston, reported a similar feeling among others vacationing in Orlando. One of her agents checked on his clients to see if they were okay and needed any assistance. “The clients all said they wanted to stay,” Weller said.

Janae Melvin, who works for a university in Ottawa, Kan., is a regular visitor to Orlando, and she has plans for a theme-park vacation and cruise in December to celebrate her parents’ 40th wedding anniversary. She said her family reviewed its plans after hearing the news.

“Orlando had a very tough week — a tragic week. But it doesn’t change our opinion of the city or the area, or Disney World operations,” she said. “You can’t live your life in fear of what might happen, in fear of the unexpected.”

But some visitors aren’t so sanguine. Travel agencies have been reporting sporadic cancellations. Andrew Reeves, the chief executive of a company that offers translation services in Los Angeles, said he was scheduled to fly to Orlando, but decided to cancel “due to the recent incidents.”

Vicki O’Grady, a marriage counselor from Orlando, said her boyfriend, who works in the timeshare industry, has seen some cancellations, too. She emailed me earlier this week to say that Orlando is probably the safest it will ever be, and asking me to tell would-be vacationers that they’re still welcome. “Please tell them not to cancel their plans,” she wrote.

Disclosure: I live in Orlando and have many friends and neighbors who are connected to the tourism industry. My first response to the question, “Is Orlando safe?” is to dismissively say, “Of course it is.” Orlando has been safe for my family and for a vast majority of visitors. But the more I think about it, the more I understand the worriers. And there’s probably nothing Orlando’s attractions can say that will reassure every visitor, particularly in light of what just happened.

Nevertheless, the city is working on ways to put tourists’ minds at ease. In reaction to the crisis, the Orlando Convention & Visitors Bureau updated and expanded the safety information on Visit Orlando’s consumer website, Visitorlando.com. Tourism authorities have briefed their phone representatives on how to answer security questions from prospective visitors. Walt Disney World closed all beach areas and posted warning signs after the alligator attack, and is reviewing its safety precautions.

Beyond these steps, the city hasn’t announced any new long-term initiatives to attract more guests or calm existing ones.

“We have adjusted our messaging to recognize the sensitivity of this past week’s events,” said George Aguel, president and chief executive of Visit Orlando. “We are listening to consumers, answering their questions and thanking them for their support.”

So far, there haven’t been any reports of widespread cancellations, and interest in Orlando remains strong. Queries through the travel search site Liligo.com suggest that it remains one of the most sought-after destinations. Orlando had roughly 6,000 weekly searches on the site, making it the top U.S. destination in June. For the week of June 12, however, search queries dipped to below 5,000 before recovering somewhat last week, according to the company.

People plan vacations to places like Walt Disney World far in advance, and it’s possible that the events could affect bookings later this year and in 2017. But it’s too soon to know. Aguel said it would be “premature” to speculate on future visitation.

“To date, we have not seen indications of change to our visitors’ plans to visit the destination,” he said. “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 beloved travel destination.”

Potential visitors who aren’t daunted by the recent news — or who think that avoiding the site of the massacre is a concession to terrorism — might do well to wait and see if cancellations inspire discounts. It pains me to write these words, as someone who calls Orlando home. But I think the worst impact on tourism hasn’t hit yet. We might see some deals ahead. If you have a little time before your vacation, it might be smart to wait before you book.

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