ORLANDO — For a region that likes to bill itself as “the happiest place on Earth,” three shocking and tragic incidents over the course of a few days brought round-the-clock international coverage to the Orlando area – and not in the way the city wanted.
But it’s not yet clear if these incidents — which include the worst domestic terrorist attack in the nation since 911 – will have a lasting impact on the Orlando area’s tourism industry. In fact, the president of the World Travel & Tourism Council predicted that Orlando’s tourist attractions would likely make a quick rebound.
For Orlando, the grim reports started on June 10, when Christina Grimmie, the 22-year-old singer from NBC’s “The Voice,” was fatally shot while signing autographs after a show at The Plaza Live theater in Orlando. A man approached her and opened fire. The shooter, later identified as Kevin James Loibl, shot and killed himself after the singer’s brother, Marcus Grimmie, tackled him.
The shock that that incident was rapidly followed by an even more devastating attack on Sunday, June 12, when a gunman entered Pulse, a gay nightclub near downtown Orlando, and shot and killed 49 people and injured 53 others. The shooter, Omar Mateen, was killed by Orlando police after a three hour standoff. Mateen had expressed hatred for gay people and had sworn allegiance to ISIS.
The next day, there was a third tragic incident, at Walt Disney World’s Grand Floridian Resort and Spa, where an alligator in an artificial lake pulled a 2-year-old boy into the water. The boy had been visiting the Disney hotel with his family from Nebraska, and authorities found the body of the child, Lane Graves, two days later in the water.
Devastatingly horrific, these incidents captured worldwide attention, putting a spotlight on Orlando for what many would say was all the wrong reasons.
Still left unanswered is what kind of impact these incidents could have on the region’s tourism industry. The first quarter of 2016, as it turns out, was a record breaker, with an estimated 29.8 million tourists visiting Florida between January and March, the office of Florida Gov. Rick Scott recently reported. That number boke the previous high of 28.5 million recorded in the first quarter of 2015.
Will those numbers take a sharp downward turn now?
Shortly after the attack at Pulse, the World Travel & Tourism Council issued a statement noting that it was “deeply saddened by the attack,” while David Scowsill, the council’s president and CEO, added, “This is a horrific attack, the largest mass killing that has occurred in the U.S. since 9/11. Whilst the authorities investigate the motivations and the cause of this incident, our heartfelt condolences go out to the victims and their family and friends. We would like to express our support to the LGBT community and the people of Orlando, as they come to terms with this appalling act of violence.”
Scowsill also responded to the question of how this massacre could impact tourism in Central Florida.
The travel industry is always having disruptions,” he said, while adding, “In general terms, [the industry] is incredibly resilient.”
He pointed out that studies have shown that when urban centers experience isolated acts of violence that’s not aimed directly at tourists – as was the case in the Pulse shooting — “Things go back to normal very quickly,” Scowsill added.
One example he cited was the 2005 London transit bombings, which the city was able to bounce back from. In contrast, Scowsill pointed to the struggles and drops in tourism in Egypt and Tunisia after terrorist attacks specifically targeted at tourists.
Tourism officials in Paris, Scowsill noted, have reported a slow recovery in the city at the start of the year following the terrorist attacks last November, while it took Bali more than a year to recover from a 2002 bombing at a nightclub.
While Scowsill predicts there will be a few weeks when visitors hesitate before booking a trip to Orlando, he does “not expect a huge amount of cancellations” for vacations that had already been planned in the city.
“That’s because law enforcement and the local government quickly and effectively communicated information about the shootings, which were put to a stop when the suspect was killed,” he said.
WTTC has done studies on the impact of tragic events – included terrorist attacks – on cities with a large tourism base. The study concluded that it takes roughly 13 months for tourism to recover from a terrorist attack.
If that sounds like a long time, it should be noted that the WTTC, based in London, found that tourism takes even longer to bounce back from other incidents, including a major disease outbreak (21 months), an environmental disaster (24 months), and political unrest (27 months). One reason for the difference is that an environmental disaster can require months, even years, of rebuilding – for example, the tsunami in Thailand in 2004, or Japan’s earthquake in 2011.
The study found terrorist attacks had the lowest impact in terms of lost arrivals and recovery time.
“Based on our analysis of impacts at the country level, previous large-scale terrorist attacks in major European capitals – Madrid 2004, London 2005 – have had a decidedly limited impact on overall tourism to the country,” the report notes. “In the case of Madrid, arrivals to Spain recovered to pre-bombing levels within weeks. In the case of London, there was no notable impact on tourist arrivals to the U.K. at all.”
In fact, WTTC just released a study showing that tourism helps promote not terrorist attacks – but global peace. The study, titled “Tourism as a Driver of Peace,” notes that “Travel and tourism has often been recognized for its ability to drive peace, security and understanding. World leaders, from John F Kennedy to Bill Clinton to Tony Blair, have highlighted the importance of the sector.”
WTTC, in partnership with the Institute of Economics and Peace, explored the links between tourism and peace.
“The research shows that countries with a more open and sustainable tourism sector tend to be more peaceful: A sustainable and open tourism sector brings about higher level of positive peace: namely the attitudes, institutions, and structures that create and sustain peaceful societies,” the report concluded. Countries with a more sustainable and open tourism sector are more likely to enjoy higher levels of positive peace in the future. The more sustainable a country’s tourism sector, the lower the country’s level of violence and conflict is likely to be. In non-conflict-affected countries, tourism is resilient to deteriorations in violence and conflict.”
Just as the world watched the 24-hour coverage of the Pulse shooting, audiences also watching the aftermath — as thousands of Central Floridians came together to honor the victims lost in the attack. The world was able to watch a city come together, unite in a common bond of working to remember the victims and providing crucial assistance to their families, and to work to heal from such a devastating tragedy.
That most likely has produced a similarly strong global show of support for the city and what it has endured.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..