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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, November 13, 2001

Tourism Talk
Flight 587 disaster deals blow to fragile American psyche

By Michele Kayal
Advertiser Staff Writer

It's hard not to feel sick about what happened in New York yesterday, no matter the cause.

All those families. All those lives. And just a few days from a Thanksgiving that already promised to be one of the most poignant we've ever had in this country, one tinged by sadness and the newly acute knowledge that we are all in this together, that our Americanness is what binds us.

American Airlines Flight 587 was the first plane crash since the plane crashes, and it was an almost Pavlovian trigger. Sickness, weakness, disbelief, vulnerability, smallness, all rushed forward at once. All it took was a scant half-sentence as the radio went on — "this tragic plane crash" — to send a shot of Novocain through the soul; the ears went numb, then the body, then the knees buckled, then came the inevitable thought, "Oh no, not again."

And the worst part is that this probably isn't even the other shoe.

If yesterday's accident actually was an accident, logic says the impact on Hawai'i and its tourism industry should be short-lived. But the American psyche is fundamentally different than it was just 63 days ago, and the merest jolt makes people skittish as cats. The way Americans feel about things they took for granted — getting on a plane, taking a vacation — may have been changed more than it is possible to know just yet.

Plane crashes — legitimate accidents of mechanical failure or pilot error — do occur. They have always occurred. The NTSB is a busy agency. But the sensitivities about flying are so acute now, that actual cause may not influence people's feelings about getting on a plane. Yesterday's incident could have an impact on tourism no matter what the facts are.

Across the country, airport taxi drivers were dismayed by the news. "People were getting more confidence. They wanted to get back in the air," cabbie Erines Eleazar told a reporter in Miami. "Now they had this crash — it's just going to kill the business again."

One couple on their way to Newark airport after a vacation in Hawai'i were diverted to Detroit. They decided to rent a car and drive the rest of the way home.

And in Waikiki, visitors also balked. Many said if the accident had happened before they got here, they probably would have come anyway, but the news did make them "edgy." Others said they might have waited a bit to visit if this had happened earlier.

People are already altering their travel habits. Too mournful, too fragile, perhaps too guilty to indulge in a hedonistic vacation of lying on the beach while Americans are at war, while disasters are randomly befalling families, people seem to need to justify their travel.

The adventure-travel market has surged, as has educational travel. People seem to feel it's okay to go on vacation if they vacation with a purpose, if they're indulging a passion, not just relaxing.

Hawai'i has some adventure travel, and there's a smattering of educational travel here and there, though the destination is by no means known for either. Rest and rejuvenation are big these days, with visits to spas and ashrams up nationwide as people seek solace. Hawai'i's health and wellness angle could fit this bill.

But the basic lesson in people's reactions yesterday is that there is little that can be said or done to overcome the the damage done to hearts and souls on Sept. 11. There is no marketing message you can send. There is no salve you can apply. There is nothing you can offer that will make people want to get back on a plane anytime soon.

Things were just beginning to feel somewhat normal again. The number of airline passengers has picked up. It's not where it should be, but it's stable. A Hawai'i delegation just finished giving New York rescue workers 1,200 free trips to the Islands. Everyone was smiling. Everyone was happy. Mayor Giuliani admired the lei made by the school children.

The shoe seemed to be safely tucked way in the back of the closet.

But yesterday showed it will be a long time before we forget it is there entirely.

Reach Michele Kayal at mkayal@honoluluadvertiser.com