How to Write About Shocks to the Tourism Industry

By Newley Purnell
Columbia Journalism School C’13

Tourism is big business. Last year, international tourism receipts amounted to $1.2 trillion, or approximately six percent of global goods and services exports, according to the United Nations’s World Tourism Organization. This year, the group estimates that international passenger arrivals will reach one billion for the first time, up from 990 million in 2011.

Given the industry’s global economic significance, business journalists should be equipped to provide accurate, timely coverage when unexpected shocks hit the sector. In a recent example, Hurricane Sandy struck New York City in late October. The storm not only exacted a humanitarian toll, but also an economic one, disrupting travel to and from a top global destination. In 2011, New York attracted nearly 51 million domestic and international visitors who spent $34 billion in the city, according to NYC and Company, the city’s official tourism group.

Here are some tips for reporting on tourism shocks like Sandy.

Check in with tourism groups

Organizations like NYC and Company that promote tourism in their areas can provide valuable input regarding how hard the sector has been hit. At the national level, the government’s Office of Travel and Tourism Industries, which promotes the American travel sector, might also provide insight. Another group worth contacting is Brand USA, a public-private partnership based in Washington, D.C. that advocates travel to the U.S.

Analyze the numbers

Examine the impact of the event on tourism by looking at weekly or monthly arrivals and spending before and after the shock occurred. For example, if arrivals in the wake of an event seem unaffected, this could indicate that travelers did not stay away.

Look at how specific industries that rely on tourism have been affected. The Broadway League, a commercial theater industry association, says roughly 12.5 million people attended shows in New York City during the 2010-2011 season, a larger crowd than the combined annual attendance of New York and New Jersey’s ten professional sports teams. Tourists accounted for nearly two thirds of the audience, the group says. The Broadway League might be able to weigh in on attendance numbers after Hurricane Sandy, or reflect on how attendance was affected by previous events, like the September 11th attacks.

Talk to travel analysts

Independent travel analysts can help put an event in context by offering some historical perspective. For example, Henry Harteveldt, chief research officer and co-founder of Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Atmosphere Research Group, told Covering Business that New York City seems to have proven resilient after Hurricane Sandy.

Harteveldt said that damage to the industry has been minimal because New York offers such a large, diverse market, with a wide variety of geographically dispersed attractions. In addition, the city was able to get subways running again quickly after the system was shut down during the storm. Harteveldt also noted that while some hotels lost bookings because of cancelled trips, many made up the losses with an unexpected influx of New Yorkers who were displaced from their homes by the storm.

Still, Harteveldt noted that it is important for journalists to understand that natural disasters involve uncertainty. “I respect that reporters want answers, but the nature of natural disasters means it’s difficult” to determine what will happen next, he said. “It’s very difficult at the outset or in the immediate aftermath of a storm to quantify the financial impact,” he said.

Remember the industry’s front lines

Analysts can provide input, but don’t forget that staff at hotels, museums and sites like national monuments can also offer insight. Did cancellations just surge? Are the lines shorter than normal for this time of year?

Keep in mind that some vendors could be reluctant to reveal that business has slowed. Hotel officials, in particular, could be wary of disclosing low occupancy rates. Visit the hotel yourself and speak with staff there.

Travel agents can also be valuable sources because they tend to have a feel for broad trends and individual markets. For example, a travel agent might reveal that some domestic tourists were scared away after Hurricane Sandy, canceling their trips. But maybe international tourists arriving on long-haul flights, which are harder to change, decided to visit anyway.

Look at long-term trends

Some destinations may be especially resilient or vulnerable to unexpected shocks. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, the city lost $2 billion in business, according to the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation. The city was also hit hard economically because tourism is the city’s biggest industry by tax revenues, employing some 70,000 people.

However, following Katrina’s devastation — as well as the BP oil spill and the ongoing recession — the NOTMC says that visitors to the city actually have it better now. Travelers can benefit from hundreds of new restaurants, revamped hotels, and a refurbished convention center, the group says. Arrivals to the city have nearly reached pre-Katrina levels, and visitors spent $5.47 billion in the city in 2011 — a record, according to The Times-Picayune.

Be careful about drawing spurious connections. Harteveldt said that Katrina and Sandy were “vastly different” events in terms of scale. “The only thing that New York and New Orleans share are that both cities start with the word ‘New’ and both were hit with hurricanes,” he said.

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