Tear Gas and Tourism: Come For The Scenery, Leave With a Tombstone.

Yesterday, I caught a whiff of tear gas. I have known that smell for over twenty years. I cannot describe it; it really does not smell all that bad. It burns, and it hurts. But it is not a particularly bad smell. It does not smell like anything I can compare it to, though.

I did not tell my wife or kids that I could smell it. Why should I? We were hiking to the beach, far from any protest.

I smelled it a few days earlier in Seattle. A friend and I were interviewing Charles Peterson, a famous grunge photographer. I asked my buddy, Jacob Calle, is your nose burning? Do you smell that?

I am not unfamiliar with the smell of tear gas. I inhaled it occasionally throughout my time in the Army. The Army said they did it so that you knew what it felt like and stayed calm in a similar situation and not freak out.

 

I thought about that as I watched the Mom wall in Portland take canister after canister of tear gas. The odds are there is a veteran or two amongst them, but they could not all be veterans. Maybe the Army was full of shit and simply stuck soldiers in the CS chamber because of sadism.

Maybe it was just the people who could get within four blocks of the protest where my nose first picked up the scent and keep going were built of sturdier stuff.

I sometimes wonder if those federal agents ever ask themselves, “What happens if a democrat is elected? Will I be held accountable for my actions?”

Last night I blew up at my wife, got really angry over something stupid that I’d never usually get upset about. This morning, I thought to myself, “holy shit, these are the same symptoms of PTSD. I do not have PTSD. Do I?” I know self diagnosis isn’t wise, and it’s probably just stress. 

If I heard another person say that I would probably mock them, and here I am.

Ten days ago, I was in Portland, standing amongst the protestors with four cameras on my body.

I saw a National Geographic Photographer standing in the crowd. I recognized him from a photo in an article. I was standing in a group of people with helmets and cameras, all clearly labeled press. One journalist tried asking a question I could not hear. I watched the federal police officer stare back and just softly lob a gas canister over the fence into the group of media. No big deal right, who needs those pesky first amendment rights.

That canister got me pretty good. I laughed it off, making a comment about breathing in spicy air tacos. A few moments later, I was on my knees as a woman poured water over my eyes. I took a few minutes to recover, and back I went.

I caught myself cheering when I saw one of the federal police officers sprain his ankle and got carried inside. I do not feel bad about it, but it is not something I would have ever done before.

How did I get here?

I have a degree in accounting, what the hell am I doing wearing makeshift body armor to protect myself from federal police officers that I am photographing?

I can easily go back to public accounting, why am I still pushing a travel blog in the middle of a pandemic?

Pride, anger, maybe both.

Not too long ago, I was running the finances for Northwest Travel Magazine. Dave Peterson, the owner, and my former boss fired me after berating in a variety of offensive ways like, “I don’t need a fucking autistic guy fucking up my office.”

He always said that he had no real competition in the area, so I thought to myself, “Screw him. I will become the competition.”

I took a bit of pleasure when I found out several former employees were suing him for sexual harassment and hostile work environment. I should have sued him. I met with a lawyer a couple of times. I decided I wanted to beat him where it really hurt. He had insurance to cover his lawsuit losses. If I wanted to beat him, it would be in the free market.

I took pleasure that his last magazine barely had any advertisement coverage. He barely made printing costs. His last issue did not come out, but his website said they would return in the fall. So, I am patiently waiting and continuing to write about travel destinations in the Pacific Northwest. If he manages to make it through, I will too.

It has been over a year, and I still despise him. I despise the fact that I had to pretend to be a Trump supporter for fear of keeping my job. I despise the fact that I saw how poorly he paid writers and how nicely he paid advertising salesmen. It was disgusting. He is part of the problem, and it is time he gets thrown under the bus.

Why am I throwing him under the bus? Because he is just one of many examples of an industry run by an old boys club. Omar Afra, previous owner of Free Press Houston, is another example. The list goes on and upward to increasingly powerful men whose sense of self entitlement and lack of responsible or coherent leadership is helping to fuel the fire of COVID-19.

After leaving, I figured I’d try to find a way to reverse the writer pay / sales discrepancy, and it has been expensive, and my idea hasn’t worked. My target advertisers were Destination Marketing Organizations. They all had their budgets instantly destroyed by the pandemic. My decision to try and compete with zero budget and no revenue was guaranteed to face struggles and I was aware of that. There was no way anyone could foresee, myself included, a pandemic.

How do you keep funding a travel blog and filling it with content during a pandemic?

I was a photojournalist in the Army, so I figured I would keep writing. What do I write about, though?

I live in Olympia, Washington, and found out the local farmers market was open for weeks. People should be aware of it. It is clearly a better option than being in busy, indoor grocery stores.

My drive took me past the Washington State Capitol Building, and I noticed a dozen or so protestors standing in front. Conservatives, angry about the lockdown, had been protesting for about a week before this protest in states like Michigan.

I went to the farmers market; I took some great photos. I never wrote about it, though. I began driving home, traffic was unusually heavy. In less than an hour, thousands of people had shown up.

I was a military photojournalist. I was willing to photograph war; Why not photograph a protest? I expected a shit show. I expected racists and ignorance. That stuff was there. But mostly, it felt good being there listening to people ask me ridiculous questions like “Have you heard of QAnon?” I’d play dumb and listen to them tell me about their favorite conspiracies. Everyone was super pleasant. They mostly seemed happy to be outside with their friends.

The police were there. Six of them that I could see. I took photos of every one of them I saw. Casually riding their bikes, wearing blue polo shirts, shorts, riding bikes around. One was in uniform, standing off to the side.

I talked to a guy about his bed & breakfast, almost instantly failing due to the shutdown. His life savings are gone.

I talked to people who did not have any savings and were out of work and waiting on an unresponsive unemployment system. The same unemployment system that granted small business owners funds to help them but has constantly and confusingly approved then denied me. It is August, and I have not seen a dime of those funds.

I left that protest with tons of photos. I thought as I left, the left is going to start protesting soon. It is going to be significantly worse. I thought the inability to get unemployment and keep roofs over their head was going to be the spark. But it was George Floyd. It was a helluva spark. The protests I predicted were delayed by the stimulus but could begin any day now as the stimulus situation in the other Washington is being endlessly debated.

I had taken photos of Seattle being abandoned on a Friday evening. That was the closest I had experienced going viral. The protest photos blew that out of the water. I got hate mail for those photos, from the left that I feel much more closely aligned. I had people message me and tell me they hoped my family and I died of COVID.

Wow.

When the BLM protests began in Olympia. I decided to cover those. What I saw was atrocious, and that deserves multiple entire articles. What I saw in Seattle at CHOP / CHAZ was worse but in a weirdly optimistic way. Portland was a nightmare. Portland is the moment that I believed America, as we know it, will cease to exist. Perhaps, I am being a bit of a bear, though. This could end soonish, maybe, hopefully.wf

 

 

Roadside Ofrenda with offerings to the deceased outside Bisbee, AZ.

 

The Failed State of the Tourism Industry

 
The tourism industry will begin to recover, and the immense amount of people that have lost their jobs will regain their footing. There is surely a coherent plan in place, right?

Hotels, rental cars, theme parks, airlines, advertising, restaurants, resorts, spas, real estate, magazines, bloggers, Instagrammers, entire states, and countries face economic destruction by COVID.

The City of Bend, Oregon’s premier outdoor recreation spot, asked people to stay away recently. It is a strange order for a city where just over 13 percent of the labor force depends on tourism. As of August 10th, Oregon has a confirmed 21,272 cases of COVID-19 and only 356 deaths.

Arizona, on the other hand, currently has 187,523 cases and 4,154 deaths. According to the first statement on Arizona’s tourism plan for COVID, Arizona’s message is to increase total visitation and direct visitor spending, increase industry relations and education, and optimize operations. You would think there would be a more substantial plan than “make more money.” This is inherently contradictory to their media talking points memo, “The best action we can take as an industry is to model the behavior, we want to see from the public at large.” It is quite a juxtaposition from their statement on the Arizona Tourism Bureaus travel updates informing people immediately that “There are no current travel restrictions for any individuals visiting Arizona.

Arizona’s message is concerning given how hard hit the state is as a whole, even moreso when you factor in the devastation it caused to the Navajo.

There is a lot to be upset about, but Arizona without tourism is like Detroit without car factories. Which means people are losing their ability to make a living, unemployment is not getting through congress.  That loss has a ripple effect that is cascading through their economy and will continue for years, even if the virus was stopped dead in its tracks today.

There is no good choice. There is no way out of this for the tourism industry. When the state tourism boards are part of the decision on whether people die or go bankrupt, we have a major systemic issue.

What’s less than ideal is the state tourism plan is designed by the old boys club that comprise guys like David Peterson and Omar Afra, but Arizona is forward thinking(sarcasm) and hired a woman named Debbie Johnson. 

What has Debbie accomplished this year?

While thousands of people are dying and the Navajo are taking the brunt of the virus, Debbie Johnson’s bright idea was to increase advertising with the campaign “{Un]real Spring Deals.” Something is certainly unreal and it’s that Debbie Johnson has decided to use tax payer dollars to help worsen the Pandemic.  

While I pointed out Arizona, this is the same decision facing state, regional, and city destination marketing organizations across the entire country. Not only are they tasked with saving an industry that can comprise as much as 10 percent of a state’s revenue, but their own livelihoods are reliant on tax collected from hotel stays and park entrances. Which calls into question their motives, are they interested in being part of the solution, or are the ones that remain keen on pouring gasoline on the fire. 

According to azbigmedia.com, all of this is being helped along by PR Firm Off Madison Ave. who reasoned, “The Flexibility of the “[un]real concept means that images and messaging can easily be adjusted depending on the market, target audience, seasonality and medium.” 

I wonder if any of those mediums includes a casket?

These tourism bureaus are laying off upwards of 75 percent of their staff while also trying to make plans to save their cities or the state’s economy while also sending money hand over fist to high dollar PR firms.

That is not a dilemma, Frodo getting the ring to Mount Doom was a dilemma, Watergate was a dilemma. This is something else entirely.

Anyone Have Suggestions? 

Sometimes problems are best solved by solving an unrelated problem. It takes a special kind of leader to understand this, and it takes a rare and great leader to know which unrelated problem to solve and how to solve it.

I noticed a city’s tourism board’s social media posts were being inundated with comments about how the homeless have ruined the city. I began to ask myself, what if they stopped spending their budget on advertisements and slogans and websites, and instead spent it on the homeless problem.

People would once again feel safe entering the city, resulting in increased hotel stays, resulting in a larger budget for the bureau and the attention on their methodology alone would result in others providing the press and advertisement for them.

Let us be real here, homelessness, racial inequality, and mass protests and riots against police violence seem like much easier problems to solve in general than a worldwide pandemic that is laying waste to the world’s economy. Tourism bureau’s need to step up into leadership roles and act.

How should they act? I am not sure. I am not a rare and great leader. I do know that ignoring the issue and doing business, as usual, is not going to cut it, though. Millions of people depend on their life or death decisions, and that is an unusual place to be for marketers who spend their days sharing cute Instagram posts and managing ad campaigns.  

It is their call and not mine. I am just a travel blogger trying to figure what the hell to do. How will I go about promoting Arizona in my next article, headlined “Visit Tombstones: The New Arizona?”

I have a handful of interviews I am working on now, with people reliant on the tourism industry. If you are working in tourism and have found a way to make it through these times, please reach out to me at [email protected]

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