Tourism Recovery After Forest Fires, The Affected Community Must Decide
Since early November 2018 forest fires have devastated over 250,000 acres (125,000 hectares) of forest in Northern California and parts of greater Los Angeles. The fires have destroyed 9,000 homes, more than 50 people have been killed and over 100 more people missing. California has a long history of wildfires but the current outbreak is the most severe in recent history. As urban and suburban communities around the world spread into forested areas their vulnerability to forest fires grow. In recent years we have witnessed forest fires engulfing suburban and rural communities in Spain, France, North America, Australia and many other countries.
Many of the most vulnerable areas for forest fires are as popular with tourists as they are for the residents. In dealing with the California fires, emergency management personnel and fire fighters have had to manage the evacuation and safety of both residents and visitors in fire affected areas. Tourist resorts and campsites are often located in forested areas. These afford an idyllic environment for tourists in good times but are vulnerable to forest fires during extended spells of hot, dry weather. During a fire of the magnitude of that being experienced in California, our deep sympathies go to those who have lost loved ones, homes, property and livelihoods.
Once a forest fire has spent its wrath and destruction, how do communities pick up the pieces and look to the future? Recently, I visited the New South Wales south coast town of Tathra which experienced a severe bushfire on March 18, 2018 which led to the destruction of 70 homes in a town of just over 1,700 residents. Fortunately, there were no deaths in Tathra but the impact of the fire on a small, close knit community has been devastating. Tathra, in common with many coastal places affected by fire is heavily dependent on tourism. Tathra and its surrounding region (known as the Sapphire Coast) is a popular family holiday resort area and much of the town’s economy is dependent on tourism.
The town’s Chamber of Commerce and the Sapphire Coast Tourism Board are in the process of developing a strategy which will focus on tourism recovery as well as an effective risk management stategy to minimise the likelihood of the town and its surrounds being engulfed by future fires. Dr Stuart Toplis, from Tourism Victoria has been a global leader in developing risk management strategies for tourism communities and businesses with a focus on preparing for and responding to fores fires. In 2013 Tourism Victoria published an excellent document “Tourism Crisis Management Planning” www.tourism.vic.gov.au/crisis which I recommend to any tourism business, anywhere in the world which could be affected by forest fires. The Australian state of Victoria has experienced some of the most destructive bushfires in Australia.
Post-forest fire recovery is a complex issue. Some communities which have been ravaged by a destructive forest fire just want to be left alone by outsiders to pick up the pieces, mourn their losses and commence reconstruction. In the case of Tathra, the community consensus has been to encourage tourists to return to the town and enjoy those attractions which were unaffected by the March 2018 fire and commence to process of restoration. However, the approach to post-fire recovery must be based on a consensus among the affected community. In California and other parts of the world which are affected by forest fires, the timing, pace and nature of post disaster restoration and recovery has to be determined by the community. Restoring tourism in a fire affected community is seen by some communities as breathing new life and support into a community. For other communities restoring tourism may be seen as an unwelcome intrusion. Either way, tourism professionals and tourists must respect the right of each affected community to respond in accordance with its will.