We live in a culture of fear. Mass media love to cultivate fear to get us to read; politicians adore using fear to get us to obey. So when you hear there's a "disaster" at a travel destination and everybody's fleeing the scene, you should wait for things to shake out a bit -- and then go. With a few exceptions (Hurricane Katrina, for instance), travel destinations tend to start receiving visitors quite soon after the (sometimes literal) smoke clears. And that time -- when things are recovering, when they're safe but people are still scared -- can be a great time to negotiate deals.
Here's how four destinations are shaping up after three kinds of disasters.
Disaster One: Fire
Here's a big secret about wildfires. They make for great TV footage, but they rarely impact tourist destinations, even when they're near tourist destinations. Once the smoke clears, it's time to head back.
Both Santa Barbara, California and Victoria, Australia had huge, deadly wild fires this year. But the major cities in both areas were spared damage (though Santa Barbara spent some time under grim smoke clouds.)
Fire has an impact on the landscape, especially if you're a hiker or you like to spend time in forests. And if your home is destroyed by fire, it's pretty horrible. My wife's family's summer house was reduced to a pile of foot-high ashes in 2003, and she's still mourning the place. But big wild fires don't usually mean a long-lasting impact for tourism.
In Santa Barbara, the botanic gardens were damaged, but they've reopened. In both California and Australia, it's mostly hiking trails that were hit. And even in rural areas, some of the most popular tourist spots were spared. The Victoria fires burned well north of Melbourne, sparing the coast. And while the affected area included the scenic Alps region, the popular Walhalla area wasn't burned, tourism officials there say. But "they have suffered from lot of cancellations and lack of business due to public's perceptions that a much wider area of the state was affected than actually was," according to Tourism Victoria's Danielle Poulos.
I didn't find many deals going on in Victoria, but Santa Barbara is running a huge promotion they call "Compliments of Santa Barbara.". The Hotel Oceana, for instance, will throw in zoo tickets or a beach gift bag with reservations, and the Franciscan Inn throws in a free trolley tour with many reservations. We'd prefer to see lower room rates, of course, but these are still promotions worth checking out.
Disaster Two: Disease
There's something about "swine flu" that really captured the imagination. I think it was the name; there's something totemic about it, like the scene in the popular animated movie Spirited Away where the heroine's parents are transformed into dumb, snorting pigs.
Hysteria over swine flu -- oh, sorry, H1N1 virus -- gutted the Mexican tourist industry, Frommer's guidebook author Joy Hepp said in this newsletter on April 28. Attractions and schools closed, Cancún emptied out and kids stayed home from school. But the upcoming deadly plague turned out to be no more than a bad case of the flu.
Mexican tourism is slowly recovering, Hepp said, and it's time for some deals. (You can read about them by destination in today's article "Post-Flu Planning: All-Inclusive Mexico from $389 for 3 Days with Airfare".) The freaky surgical masks have gone away, and kids have gone back to school. In an attempt to stabilize the tourism industry, the Mexican government is running an aggressive program of domestic deals. Hepp said she "wouldn't be surprised if some of the places on [the government's list] were willing to extend deals to international visitors." Hepp has more reports from Mexico City on her website, www.chilangabacha.com
You'll need to read Spanish to use the deals site at www.ofertasvivemexico.com.mx. Keep reloading the front page and you'll see four new deals every time. Poking around, I found deals for up to 50% off at many Best Western hotels in Mexico and discounted rates at dozens of hotels from the Mexican Hotel & Motel Association.
Disaster Three: Flood
Hurricane Katrina was a true disaster, something that people actually should have been afraid of. But it also created an opportunity for New Orleans to renovate, reinvent, and rebuild, and New Orleanians have been doing so energetically over the past four years.
For instance: The St. Charles Avenue streetcar is back in service, running all the way through the undamaged historic districts up to the famed Camellia Grill and up to Oak Street, which is becoming a popular neighborhood main street full of small shops and restaurants. The ambiance seems similar to Magazine Street. Top attractions include the Maple Leaf music club and Jacques-Imo's restaurant, and you can find a business map at www.onlyonoak.com.
New Orleans continues to get new and rehabbed hotels. The damaged Hyatt Regency downtown (where I've stayed) is finally getting a rehab with an expected reopening in 2011. Before then, you'll see the old Fairmont reopen as a Waldorf Astoria. Many of the city's attractions, as always, focus on food; there's a new Southern Food and Beverage Museum and a small museum devoted entirely to the history of absinthe.
Katrina will always a big part of New Orleans' past, of course. Locals recommended the "rebirth tour" from Cajun Encounters, a bus tour that focuses on changes post-Katrina including new housing and redevelopment projects. It's not listed on their Web site, but it's apparently so popular it runs twice a day, at 11:30 and 3:30. Book and ask for it by calling Cajun Encounters at tel. 866/92-TOURS.
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