Orlando tourism: No mass cancellations now but future unsure
Experts say it's too soon to gauge whether a week of horrific news out of Orlando will hurt tourism there. But travel agents are not seeing widespread cancellations, and many travelers say they're committed to visiting.
"I had more people worrying last year about, `Should I postpone my trip because of Ebola?"' than are worried about going to Orlando, said Cindy Minor, owner of Small World Big Fun, a travel agency specializing in Disney vacations based in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Orlando has been rocked in the past week by three events: the mass murder of 49 people in a nightclub, the fatal shooting of singer Christina Grimmie after a concert, and a 2-year-old killed by an alligator at a Disney World resort lagoon. It remains to be seen whether the bad news will shake Orlando's status as the top tourist destination in the U.S., with 66 million visitors in 2015.
"Not one person has said, `Put the trip off,' or `We were thinking about it but we want to wait,"' Minor said. For many travelers, she added, the choice comes down to this: "Are you going to sit and be scared in your house? Or are you going to live your life and make memories with your family?"
Karen L. Brown of Glasgow, Scotland, was among many who posted hearts on Visit Orlando's Facebook page. She and her extended family of six pledged to stick with plans for a 2017 Orlando trip. "We love everything Orlando," she said in an email. "I haven't even considered cancelling."
Lori Pennington-Gray, a professor at the University of Florida's Tourism Crisis Management Initiative, said travelers who've already booked trips "may be less inclined to cancel" than those who "are still deciding where to go" later this year.
"Disney is one of those big trips where it's quite costly, it's an important family proposition, and it's not something someone who has saved up all year for may be willing to walk away from," she said.
Travelers who do cancel trips may or may not get refunds, depending on how they booked. Airlines typically levy steep cancellation fees, but theme park tickets may be refundable, especially if purchased as a package deal and cancelled 30 days ahead of the reservations.
Ray Bromley, who teaches city and regional planning at the State University of New York at Albany, agreed that the biggest impact may be in future bookings as travelers weigh alternative destinations, including California's Disneyland.
Bromley predicts Orlando tourism will take a hit of 5 to 15 percent over the next year, with hotels and attractions discounting to spur demand.
For now, though, airfares have held steady. "We are not seeing any fire sales to Orlando, although fares in general have been quite reasonable," said AirfareWatchdog.com founder George Hobica.
Pennington-Gray said future bookings partly depend on "the response by the destination and the tourism industry to reinforce what they're doing to keep visitors safe. If they can do that effectively, they can minimize the impact."
Jennifer Galluzzo of Brewster, New York, heads to Orlando in July with her three children and said she has been reassured by the response of Orlando authorities: "It's likely going to be safer than ever there now."
Nina Hirsch of Juno Beach, Florida, said the attacks not only didn't deter her, but "motivated" her to book a Disney trip as a gift for her daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter: "I said, `I have to book it. I'm doing it today."'
Not all travelers were so sanguine. "I actually had a big potential client in Orlando that I was going to see, but I canceled my trip," said Andrew Reeves, CEO of Luxe Translation Services based in Los Angeles. "Too risky." Instead, he planned a Skype meeting.
Helen Marano, senior vice president of the World Travel & Tourism Council, said research shows that when terror attacks are not directed at tourists, they have "less of a long-range impact" than attacks at hotels or attractions.
She added that Orlando is "an aspirational destination where people say, `I have got to get to Orlando once in my lifetime,' and this kind of disruption will not taint that," especially given that so many visitors plan trips there well in advance. Orlando "is a major family investment not only on the financial side but also on the emotional side -- the planning, the buildup, the excitement of it, saving for it," she said.
George Aguel, CEO for Visit Orlando, confirmed that the city has "not seen indications of change to our visitors' plans," adding that "safety remains a top priority" with tourism providers and authorities collaborating on security "to ensure a safe environment for visitors."
Kim Gray, based in North Olmsted, Ohio, was one of many Travel Leaders agents who said the "awful events have had no impact on our Disney or Orlando sales thus far. We have had no cancellations to Disney World." In fact, she said, "we just booked a new package to Disney World today for a family of four."
But while the attacks have not impacted Travel Leaders Group on the business side, the company did experience a profound personal loss: One of its agents, Edward Sotomayor Jr., died in the nightclub shooting.
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