Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

Let's hope this doesn't become an annual September ritual, where we wait in dread to see what havoc superstorms will wreak around the world. 

It was a year ago this month that the Texas Gulf Coast and the Caribbean were punched hard by hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. And now, 12 months later, Florence in the Carolinas and, across the Pacific, Manghut.

For tourism dependent destinations, two distinct stages follow a disaster.

In the short term, critical needs are addressed by humanitarian aid groups.

The second stage, recovery, presents a different set of challenges. The disaster attaches a stigma that keeps tourists away long after a destination is ready to receive them. Tourism workers -- many traumatized -- find the source of their livelihood shut down. Long after media attention has drifted elsewhere, tourism workers face challenges.

Areas inundated by Florence in the Carolinas and from Typhoon Manghut in east Asia are still in the early acute phase, but in assessing what the recovery phase might look like, perhaps we can benefit from what we learned over the past 12 months. Last year, as the impact of Harvey on Texas/ Gulf Coast became clear, Tourism Cares, the industry nonprofit, began exploring how to assist during the second stage.

I'm a director of the organization and was on its Global Committee, along with USTOA CEO Terry Dale and Malia Asfour, director of the Jordan Tourism Board, North America. Together with former Tourism Cares CEO Mike Rea, we formulated a strategy to raise funds for recovery.

Little did we know that shortly afterward, we'd expand efforts to include portions of the Caribbean.

We created a Destination Disaster Recovery Fund and reached out to the travel community. You might have received an email from me then, asking for your support.

The goal of Tourism Cares isn't to duplicate or replace industry efforts or foundations but rather to complement and amplify travel-related philanthropy. Many travel companies that have foundations are deeply involved and active in Tourism Cares.

The organization raised more than $380,000. In the spirit of gratitude and transparency, I'd like to share with you how that money was spent, what was accomplished and what Tourism Cares is still doing.

First, an acknowledgement of some major donors and partners. Among the more than 350 companies and individuals who contributed were AIG Travel, Amadeus, Apple Leisure Group/Cheap Caribbean, British Airways Holidays, Bucuti & Tara Beach Resort, BVI White Cedar Fund, Ensemble, Expedia, Four Seasons Nevis, Hilton Worldwide, NTA Eric Friedheim Scholarship Fund, NYC & Company, OBMI and the U.S. Travel Association.

The full list is here.

Understanding that those close to the ground are in the best position to help ensure that funds are put to use efficiently and effectively, we hired a consultant to vet local nonprofits and potential recipients. We also worked closely with the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association and the Texas Travel Industry Association.

"Build back better" was the guiding principle to evaluate potential recipients. We wanted not just to rebuild, but to help make the destinations come back stronger.

To date, more than half the money has been granted, and needs continue to be assessed. Here is how the first phase has been spent:

In Florida, Tourism Cares organized a volunteer effort in Marathon and Big Pine Key to provide hands-on cleanup/fix-up work. In addition, funding also provided support to these local organizations:

  • The Conch Republic Marine Army, a volunteer group dedicated to restoring the Florida Keys' waterways and mangroves.
  • The Coral Restoration Foundation, which creates offshore nurseries and restoration programs for threatened coral.
  • The Florida Keys Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center, which rescues, rehabilitates and releases birds harmed or displaced by the storms.
  • Grimal Grove, a farm and botanical garden that gives tours, conducts research and educates visitors.
  • Habitat for Humanity of the Middle Keys and Habitat for Humanity of Key West and the Lower Florida Keys.
  • The Reef Environmental Education Foundation, whose goal is to protect biodiversity and ocean life.

In the Caribbean, the Dominica Hotel and Tourism Association, St. Maarten Hospitality and Trade Association, U.S. Virgin Islands Hospitality & Tourism Association, Anguilla Hotel and Tourism Association, Puerto Rico Hotel & Tourism Association and the BVI Chamber of Commerce and Hotel Association received grants to be used for local programs to promote industry collaboration and create opportunities for members. Other grants went to:

  • My Brother's Workshop and Marine Rebuild Fund that supports a marine trade school for at-risk youth.
  • The Caribbean Job Bank, a career matchmaking site.
  • Environmental Protection in the Caribbean, which creates jobs by developing and offering ecotours on St. Martin.
  • The Marine Center for Innovation Grupo Puntacana Foundation, which trains the industry on reef restoration.
  • Seeds of Love, which purchased 1,000 saplings and seedlings to replant island vegetation wiped out in the storm.

In Texas, the money went to:

  • The Port Aransas Community Theatre, to restore severe damage.
  • The Rockport-Fulton Chamber of Commerce initiative to create a hospitality training program in conjunction with Texas A&M University.
  • Restoration projects for the Texas Artists Museum in Port Arthur.

The group that currently monitors the disbursement of funds includes me; Asfour; Dale; Robin Tauck, co-owner of Tauck Inc.; Keith Sproule of Abercrombie & Kent; Brad Finkle of Trip Mate; and current Tourism Cares CEO Paula Vlamings.

For more information about Tourism Cares and what it has done in the Caribbean, Florida and Texas, visit Tourismcares.org. You'll find that recovery relief is just one aspect of how the group helps the industry in the U.S. and abroad.

As an industry, tourism is stronger ever, but as the news over this past week has reminded us, events that can impact it are unpredictable. If you're not already a member of Tourism Cares, consider joining. It's an effective means to give back to the people and places that have given so much to us, personally and professionally.

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