ORLANDO – Central Florida’s very strong tourism economy is likely to recover from the terrorist attack at a gay nightclub near downtown Orlando, said an expert on state and national economic trends.
Sean Snaith, director of the Institute for Economic Competitiveness at the University of Central Florida, said its likely most visitors will see the attack on the Pulse nightclub as a one-time event, horrific as it was, and not necessarily as something likely to be repeated.
The same is true, he said, even though it happened two days after the shooting death of a singer from “The Voice,” and one day before a toddler was killed by an alligator at a Walt Disney World hotel.
“I think that is unique,” Snaith said, “although I’m not convinced that visitors or potential visitors sort of link those together in a chain, that it defines the nature of our region. I think they’re all sort of very different – and unlikely to be repeated.”
The three incidents received worldwide press attention, with heavy coverage on local, national and cable news programs. But despite that coverage and often graphic video footage of the aftermath of the Pulse attack, Snaith said he does not expect tourists to suddenly assume Orlando is no longer a safe city to visit.
“You think, of course, of the terror attack at Pulse,” he said. “That’s a pretty difficult event for Orlando to process, perhaps more so for the residents than the visitors, and the toddler at Disney is just such a freak event. It’s not that suddenly everyone thinks if they go to Disney they will be attacked by an alligator. There may be some short term impacts from these events, but by and large I don’t think it’s going to have an impact long term.”
The fact that three such high profile cases would happen within days seems unprecedented. First, singer Christina Grimmie of NBC’s “The Voice” was fatally shot at The Plaza Live theater in Orlando on June 10 by a man who then shot and killed himself.
On June 12, a man later identified as Omar Mateen killed 49 people and injured 53 others inside Pulse, and was himself killed by Orlando police after a three-hour stand-off.
The shock continued the next day when a 2-year-old boy was attacked and killed by an alligator while his family was vacationing at Walt Disney World’s Grand Floridian resort. The child was dragged underwater in the Seven Seas Lagoon, and his body was found a day later.
Snaith said although these devastating incidents happened with a few days of one another, the impact on local tourism seems likely to be negligible.
“You’ve got 66 million people visiting Orlando in the past year,” he said. “What fraction of those visitors go to downtown Orlando proper — or a club like Pulse specifically? I think it’s people coming here to go to the theme parks, and Kennedy Space Center. Pulse is separate and away from traditional tourism corridors and locations. If this had happen on International Drive or one of the theme parks, the mark would be more lasting.
“But those theme parks were already aware that they were potential targets and had procedures in place,” Snaith added, “while Pulse didn’t have metal detectors and had one armed security. I think our main tourism areas are not as soft as someplace like Pulse.”
Asked how state and local tourism officials should respond to these incidents, Snaith said not talking about them might be the best approach.
“I think it’s tough,” he said. “This is obviously a horrific event and an incredible tragedy for the family and friends of the victims of the attack. To come out and make a statement that all of this doesn’t affect tourism would be very callous and very inconsiderate of the grief they’re suffering.”
A more appropriate response, he said, is “It’s just best to step back from it and let the community process it, and start to heal.”
George Aguel, president and CEO of Visit Florida, the city’s official tourism association, said he has not yet seen signs that people are cancelling vacations here.
“To date we have not seen indications of change to our visitors’ plans to visit the destination, and it would be premature to speculate on future visitation,” 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. For more than 40 years, generations of families from across the globe have created emotional connections and life-long memories in Orlando, which gives us confidence both now and looking toward the future.”
Only a small number of people, Aguel said, have contacted his office since the attacks to ask about safety concerns.
“We have received only a handful of inquiries from consumers regarding safety,” he said. “Although consumer questions on safety have been minimal, Visit Orlando has adjusted some of our existing resources to include information on the robust safety measures Orlando has in place. We have included information on our visitor website, as well as opportunities to talk to our team in person by phone and email.”
So far this year, Snaith added, Central Florida’s tourism economy has been booming, and Orlando remains one of the nation’s top tourist destinations.
“That continues to do quite well,” he said. “Visitation keeps breaking records, and this is the fastest growing region in Florida, and the forecast is that will continue to be the case. I think we’re dealing with this tragedy from a position of strength as far as the tourism economy goes.”
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..