While the tourism industry was intractably changed by 9/11, five years later, tourists are back, demanding value and unique experiences
The terrorism acts of September 11, 2001 tore through the US economy, affecting all industries. But, an economic downturn, combined with the images of airliners flying into buildings, was particularly devastating to the tourism industry.
“There is no question the world changed after 9-11, and the travel industry was one of the most severely impacted industries,” says Richard Kahn, president of Kahn Travel Communications. “Until the industry started making a comeback two years ago, people who had usually traveled from the US overseas [stayed home].”
Kahn says every destination, even Mexico and Canada, was hit.
But Kahn says that in his nearly 40 years in the travel industry, one thing has remained constant: “The consumer has a very short memory.”
Julie Freeman-Bradler, an SVP at Edelman, says the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), found that international tourism sustained a sharp upturn in 2005, despite various terrorist attacks and natural disasters. She says, via e-mail, “The number of international tourist arrivals recorded worldwide grew by 5.5%, and exceeded 800 million for the first time ever.”
According to Kahn, whose clients include the Caribbean Tourism Organization, the China National Tourist Office, and a number of hotels and cruise lines, leisure travelers were back on international flights before business travelers, who scaled back their trips based on economic difficulty.
“Americans believe in the inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness, which includes travel,” Kahn says.
Freeman-Bradler concurs, saying, “Lately terrorism’s impact has seemed to be rather limited and short-lived. Travelers overall have assumed the risk and have kept traveling, trying not to let external threats deter them.”
Even Saudi Arabia is getting into the tourism act, promoting its land and creating an easier visa process for Westerners. While Freeman-Bradler says this will gain traction, the land is unlikely to see a groundswell of visitors.
“Travel to Saudi Arabia and some of the other Middle Eastern countries such as Libya are for very dedicated and experienced world travelers. They are not for the average traveler,” Freeman-Bradler says. “But while the market is small, tour operators are taking advantage of the opening market as travel restrictions/visa requirements loosen. They are up-and-coming destinations.”
And today, the number one concern facing the tourism industry is still the economy, not terrorism fears, Kahn says. The return to travel coincides with an increased entrepreneurial dedication to making the Internet work better for consumers. In this Web 2.0 environment, consumers are as much travel writers and agents as they are passive participants.
“The convergence of the internet, communications, information, and marketing has had a huge impact on where people are traveling and how they’re buying tickets,” Kahn says. “People have become much more concerned about price and getting value for their vacations. And now, because of the Internet, those destinations and hotels that are experiencing success are doing it based on price and value-added vehicles.”
Kahn says that while not everyone is necessarily booking on the internet, it’s an invaluable research tool for nearly all travelers.
Freeman-Badler says that blogs and podcasts have had a “huge” effect on tourism, and that savvy destinations can help differentiate themselves by pursing online strategies like search engine optimization [SEO] and e-mail marketing.
“Podcasts are proving to be a great tool because they provide the inside scoop, the lay of the land before you get to a destination,” Freeman-Badler says. “They provide personal accounts and you feel like you're getting travel advice from a friend.”
“We’re seeing people do a lot of shorter trips, but, then again, Asia is booming,” Kahn says. KTC work for China includes playing up its undiscovered marvels and showcasing its hosting of the 2008 Olympics.
Kahn says that tourists are still going into a trip with a destination in place, but are more fickle about the final booking.
“If anything has happened in the past five years, marketers are using multiple channels to communicate,” Kahn says. “In looking at the multiple channels, [consumers] may have said, I want to go to the Italy, but looking at the pricing and value-add, as they’re researching, the come across an ad for a trip to Italy and say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know it’s so affordable.’”
Kahn also stresses the importance of data collection.
“If a destination is not collecting data on visitors, it’s shooting itself in both feet,” Kahn says. “The destination should analyze what’s working and use that for development of tomorrow’s marketing programs.”
Kahn advocates collecting data both before and after tourists visit, by collecting immigration card information and setting up symbiotic partnerships with area hotels.
He adds: “Once you’ve had a visitor, if that visitor was happy, it’s easier for that person to come back,” than to attract a new one.