Orlando's Tourism Industry Hopes To Overcome A Nightmarish Week

Jun 15, 2016
Originally published on June 16, 2016 9:34 am

The streets around the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., are slowly coming back to life — slowly.

Police removed one of the roadblocks a few blocks away from the gay nightclub Wednesday, allowing local traffic to drive past a makeshift memorial of flowers, balloons, candles and crosses for the 49 victims, to within view of the club.

Alex Brehm was standing by the door of a still-shuttered 7-Eleven, watching scores of federal and local law enforcement officials work the scene, thinking about what's next for his home and the city of Orlando.

"Especially now," he says. "We've had three things on the major news in a week."

It's been a nightmarish week for the city. First, 22-year old Christina Grimmie, a singer and former contestant on NBC's The Voice, was shot and killed in the city on Friday. Days later, a gunman entered Pulse and killed 49 people before being killed by police.

On Tuesday, a toddler at a Disney World resort was playing on the shoreline when he was snatched by an alligator and pulled underwater. His body was recovered Wednesday.

The string of events would be devastating to any community, but it has the potential to be particularly so for the city of Orlando.

Tourism is a multibillion-dollar industry in Orlando and Orange County, Fla. More than 66 million people visited the city last year to see attractions like Disney World and Universal Studios, according to Visit Orlando, making it the one of the most visited places in the U.S. The leisure and hospitality industry makes up more than 20 percent of the city's workforce.

A report by the New York-based investment research firm Maxim Group says that the attack on the Pulse nightclub has the potential to "reduce tourism-related spending" over the next couple of months. The report compared the attacks to those that happened in Paris in November. "Holiday bookings travel dropped 13 percent after those attacks," says Stephen Anderson, a senior vice president at Maxim.

At Orlando International Airport, arriving passengers expressed concern over the attacks. In the baggage claim area, many people said that they had talked about changing their travel plans or were altering their plans on the ground.

"I was a little green over it," says Jennifer Trujillo, who was planning to visit Disney World with her husband, Robert, and two kids. Her husband, who spent 24 years in the military, was less concerned.

"You weigh the options and mitigate the risk," Robert Trujillo says. "Honestly, you'd think that the awareness is raised and the security is probably a little more enhanced now than it is normally."

River and Jacob Anderson felt the same way.

"There's no point in walking around scared of it," says Jacob Anderson.

"That's the point of terrorism," says River Anderson. "That you stop living your life the way that you would've."

Disney World, Universal Studios and other major tourist attractions haven't reported slowdowns in visitors. George Aguel, the president of Visit Orlando, says that's been the case for businesses across the city so far. But there's no avoiding the problem, he says.

"The name Orlando will be associated with [the attack] for a time to come, but we hope it will not deter people from visiting our theme parks and hotels," Aguel says.

He hopes that people's relationship with Orlando — be it memories or stories shared — will be enough to overcome whatever shadow recent events have cast on the Central Florida city.

Closer to the Pulse nightclub, at Brick and Fire Pizza and Pasta Parlor, owner Mark Dollard is more worried about how the community will get back to some semblance of normal.

The business has been closed off to major traffic since the attack Sunday night, but his employees have still been making pizzas. There are still bills to pay, he says, but that's not why they've remained open.

"We're open because we want to provide anybody that walks through the door a degree of normalcy and in this community, that's something that's going to be sought for a while," he says.

Dollard knew people that were killed at Pulse. He knows the owners. Any financial loss he and other businesses have suffered, or will suffer, are meaningless compared with the loss of life there, he says.

A couple of days ago he talked to a local politician about what comes next, how the city recovers.

She didn't have an answer, he says. "She just had a hug."

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My co-host Ari Shapiro is in Orlando, and we will be hearing from him elsewhere in the show. That city has a lot to overcome, namely the deadliest shooting in modern U.S. history. The question about how the city and its businesses move forward is a big one because Orlando is one of the most visited places in the country. NPR's Nathan Rott reports on how Orlando and its tourism industry are getting back to normal.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: The traffic thins as you walk in Orange Avenue in Orlando past a makeshift memorial of flowers, candles, crosses and balloons towards a police roadblock within view of the Pulse Nightclub. There are a bunch of shuttered or half-open businesses on either side of the road here. Alex Brehm is standing by the door of a 7-Eleven, watching law enforcement work the scene.

ALEX BREHM: I've been to Pulse. It's - I mean, it's somewhere that the whole Orlando community - gay or straight, everyone - it's an awesome place to hang out, so...

ROTT: Brehm says he works about a block and a half from Pulse at a real estate office. They've been closed since the shooting like a lot of the businesses around here, and he's wondering what the long-term effect of this will be on his home of Orlando.

BREHM: Especially now we've had three things on major news in a week.

ROTT: The shooting at Pulse, the killing of former "Voice" star Christina Grimmie and the sad news in the last day that a toddler was into the water at a Disney World resort hotel by an alligator. That combination could be devastating to any community, but there's a potentially for it to be particularly so in Orlando.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Welcome to Orlando in Central Florida.

ROTT: More than 66 million people visited the city last year, many of whom flew into the city's airport where the Disney World and Universal Studios shuttle buses pick up incoming tourists. All of the news in the last week isn't lost on people arriving here. Jennifer and Robert Trujillo came in from Denver with their two kids to visit Disney World.

JENNIFER TRUJILLO: So I was a little green over it, but we, you know, we talked about it.

ROTT: You weren't so much.

ROBERT TRUJILLO: No - 24 years in the military, you know - it's inherent risk.

ROTT: River and Jacob Anderson from Albuquerque said something similar.

JACOB ANDERSON: There's no point in walking around scared of it, you know? I mean...

RIVER ANDERSON: That's the point of terrorism...

ANDERSON: Yep, I mean...

ANDERSON: ...Is that you stop living your life the way that you would've.

ROTT: Still, the fear is real here for the tourism industry that there could be a negative result on the city's economy. George Aguela is with Visit Orlando. He says tourism...

GEORGE AGUELA: Is about a third of all the jobs in the area. So it's large in that respect, and then certainly any notable decline, were there to be on, would certainly be effect - would certainly be noticed.

ROTT: Aguela says they haven't noticed a decline yet, and he hopes that they won't. But it may be too soon to tell.

Back near Pulse at Brick and Fire Pizza, owner Mark Dollard says they've still got to pay the bills, but that's not why they're open today.

MARK DOLLARD: We're open because we want to provide anybody that walks through the door a degree of normalcy, and in this community, that's something that's going to be sought for a while.

ROTT: Dollard says he talked to a local politician a couple of days ago.

DOLLARD: The only thing came out of my mouth was, what are we going to do now? How are we going to move forward from this?

ROTT: Did she have an answer?

DOLLARD: No, she really didn't. She just had a hug.


ROTT: For now, that might be exactly what this community needs. Nathan Rott, NPR News, Orlando. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.