Arnie WeissmannA year can be defined by events, but a decade is defined by trends.

Trends don't consult calendars, of course, and sometimes a major societal shift emerges a few years after a decade gets under way.

If one thinks, for example, of '60s music, it's not likely that "The Theme from Exodus" or "Moon River" would be the first songs that come to mind. Nonetheless, they won Grammys as Song of the Year in 1961 and 1962, respectively.

It wasn't until 1963 -- the year "Blowin' in the Wind" was released -- that all we've come to think of as the '60s sensibility began coming together. Challenges to authority, institutions and tradition became the dominant theme of that decade.

So what was the dominant theme of "the aughts" decade? When did it appear, and how did it affect the travel industry? Sadly, I believe that the defining trend was fear. It dominated the American psyche and life for much of the past 10 years and has, for better or worse, shaped the current travel experience.

If the near simultaneous events of John F. Kennedy's assassination and the Beatles' first appearance on Ed Sullivan brought together societal undercurrents and heralded the emergence of the '60s mentality, the terrorist acts of Sept. 11, 2001, were the catalyst that pushed the nation, and the industry, into the aughts.

The legacy of that day haunts our industry still. It dramatically altered the experience of passing through an airport and of flying. It changed the way visitors are treated upon arrival in the U.S. And, for about seven of the last 10 years, it affected the way Americans were perceived when they traveled abroad.

The recurrence of terrorism throughout the decade reverberated within the travel industry more than in any other sector of commerce. It could, in a blink, wipe a popular travel destination off the map. New York, Madrid, London, Mumbai, Jakarta, Amman and, twice, poor Bali were avoided for varying periods after terrorist attacks.

Kenya and other countries suffered from U.S. State Department travel advisories that assigned a level of danger that was, in fact, no worse than that assigned to the U.S. itself by the Department of Homeland Security.

Once it surfaces, fear can become the filter through which every decision passes. There were good reasons not to visit a city where SARS was spreading in 2002 or 2003, but was it really necessary to avoid any Asian destination within a 3,000-mile radius of Hong Kong?

As the Iraq War built up, no one bothered to consult a map; traffic to Europe simply shut down.

Drug wars in Mexican border towns brought traffic to a trickle in beach destinations more than a thousand miles from the violence. Fear apparently makes us forget what little geography we might have learned in school.

Fear of bird flu, then swine flu, had travelers donning masks if they were brave enough to transit anywhere in a region where a case of either had been reported.

After the devastating tsunami hit portions of South Asia in December 2004, I was asked by someone in the industry if I thought they should cancel their trip to landlocked Delhi five months later.

A passenger who prays at a departure gate risks being removed from a plane if reported by a fellow passenger. By the middle of the decade, fear had become reflexive.

But wait, you might say: Did travelers not have valid reasons for fear? Are there not terrorists planning harm to Westerners, terrorists who have demonstrated an appetite for blowing up airplanes, trains, buses and hotels?

There is no question that terrorists exist who wish us harm and who have learned that tourist venues make good targets precisely because blowing them up has a long economic tail. After their bombs go off, the tourist economy is, for a period, also shattered.

As an industry, however, travel was not crippled by fear. Travel insurance companies and online travel agencies that focused on "deals" stimulated by soft demand were the obvious economic winners in the Decade of Fear.

But interestingly, there was innovation and economic benefit for other industry sectors as a result of travelers' insecurity. The phenomenal expansion of cruise ship home ports was a direct result of the fear of flying that gripped the nation for more than a year following the 9/11 attacks. Home ports have become central to cruise industry expansion.

Tour operators catered to the trends as well. Multigenerational travel took off in the years following 9/11. The trauma people felt at being separated from loved ones during the days in September 2001 when all planes were grounded had a profound impact on Americans. A sudden awareness of the fragility of life brought families closer together, especially when traveling.

The rise of experiential, rather than observational, travel also can be traced to Sept. 11, 2001. Some travelers took a sudden interest in wanting to understand more deeply the world beyond their shores. Making sense of what happened required a better understanding of people who looked, spoke, thought, worshipped and behaved differently.

The post-9/11 mentality can also be seen in sectors that, on the surface, seem diametrically opposed to experiential travel. The rise in luxury resorts and spa vacations during the aughts can be linked to a need for security. Rising affluence in the middle part of the decade made it possible to both travel and stay protected by a cocoon of Western-style ambience and pampering.

In a similar vein, all-inclusives, many of which are located in developing countries, have done very well in this decade, fueled in part by guests who fear the unknown and wish to be immersed in the familiar, no matter where they might be.

During the last 16 months of the decade, economic fears have had a strong negative impact on the industry. But at the same time, government rhetoric regarding international policy has been focused on easing fear and distrust. There may be concrete results coming from this shift very soon indeed: It's possible that easy access to Cuba will become a reality for Americans.

The Travel Promotion Act is likely to be signed into law during this Congress, and the U.S. Travel Association believes it can make headway in improving the entry process for the visitors from abroad whom the new law is designed to lure.

Just as a decade's trend doesn't begin neatly on New Year's Day in years ending in a zero, neither does it necessarily end at midnight on Dec. 31 in years ending in nine. Freedom from fear while traveling is more an ideal than a likelihood over the next 10 years. Terrorism is not going to disappear.

The big question is: For how many years will Americans react to each new perceived danger by canceling travel plans? No one knows the answer; it is, as the song says, blowin' in the wind. But I hold out hope that fear will not characterize the decade that is about to begin.

As regards terrorism, sooner or later Americans will realize that when they cancel their travel plans, lock their doors and curl up in a fetal position out of fear of terrorists, they will be less secure, not more. By deciding to stay at home, they have in fact encouraged terrorists by handing them thousands of small, very personal victories.

Contact Arnie Weissmann at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter.


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