Houston Tourism Bounces Back
Though many Houstonians are still piecing their lives back together, the city’s downtown area was mainly spared from the wrath of Hurricane Harvey. Both airports are fully operational and reachable via the normal roads, as are all METRORail and most local bus routes. The vast majority of hotels (98 percent of Hotel & Lodging Association of Greater Houston members, more than 350 at last count) have reopened, as have most major attractions and restaurants near downtown, the Heights, the Galleria, and the other central districts.
The city may be bouncing back, but it won’t heal overnight, and its residents will need long-term support. “The best way to assist Houston in its recovery is by coming to visit,” the city’s tourism office says. “Keep your planned travel, keep your scheduled meetings, and keep coming back.” Volunteer opportunities abound—from food banks to clean-up crews, there’s a serious need for extra hands—but if you can’t get there in person, The Greater Houston Community Foundation’s Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund, the Texas Diaper Bank, the Houston Humane Society, and plenty of other worthy organizations are accepting donations. On the ground, here’s where things stand for three major sectors of the tourism industry:
A whole lot of the 12,000-plus restaurants in the greater Houston area were affected by the storm—most were closed for at least three or four days in the immediate aftermath, and supply-chain issues persisted for a week to ten days—but the majority are now back up and running, according to Jonathan Horowitz, CEO of Legacy Restaurants and president of the Greater Houston Restaurant Association. That’s thanks in part to “more than extraordinary” efforts from members of the local service industry, such as the Houston publicist who coordinated food donations and distribution to shelters and first responders, all while stranded in Atlanta, and from internationally known chefs like José Andrés, who traveled to Texas just days after the hurricane to cook for those in need. “I could write ten paragraphs on this,” Horowitz says. “The entire hospitality community came together to prepare and distribute literally hundreds of thousands of meals, and everyone who joined in was and continues to be greatly appreciated.”
Obviously, though, it’s not all wine and roses. “There are a couple of areas still flooded where recovery is going to take a very long time,” says Horowitz. “Some may not reopen as the financial burden of being closed for so long becomes too great to handle.” For employees, these closures, temporary or permanent, mean a loss of work and pay on top of often significant personal losses, and given the belt-tightening that can follow in the wake of such tragedies, they may lose more hours in the coming weeks. “Even now, many restaurants are reporting slower sales as customers continue to deal with their own personal recovery efforts and try to conserve financial resources,” he says. The good news, he adds, is that, although some previously scheduled events have been postponed or canceled, many charity events have been turned into recovery fundraisers, and most large conferences and conventions have stuck with their plans to come to Houston. One way visitors can help? Be sure to eat out often and well—those dining dollars will go a long way toward getting beleaguered local businesses back on track.
Other than a few games that had to be moved to different locations or forfeited entirely, Houston’s professional and college-level sports teams have returned to their regular schedules, and there shouldn’t be any additional impact over the course of the next few months. “For the most part, teams are back on track,” says Doug Hall, vice president of special projects for Harris County-Houston Sports Authority. But don’t think athletes were unaffected by the devastation—on the whole, they were moved to participate in various relief efforts, donating money or time or both. “Many Houston athletes were involved through their teams or their own foundations or charities, and many also donated to the hurricane relief funds,” Hall says. “Obviously, JJ Watt was front and center, as was James Harden, Carlos Correa, and Dynamo and Dash players, but all of the professional teams pledged funds to the relief efforts as well as linking in with first responders. Most of the university teams participated in relief efforts of various kinds as well, cleaning out houses, donating food, and volunteering at or touring shelters.” For its part, the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority collected money from both sports commissions nationwide and local vendors, and its members volunteered at shelters, collected and made donations, and helped catalogue what came in for distribution. (The organization led a similar effort in Jacksonville, Florida, post-Hurricane Irma.) Plenty of sports-related entities are still in need of assistance, though, so there’s more work to be done.
Some of the city’s marquee performing-arts venues were hit hard by the flooding: After the Wortham Theater Center was damaged extensively, companies such as the Houston Ballet and the Houston Grand Opera had to reschedule performances and scramble to find new homes for their new seasons, as did plays slated for runs at the Alley Theatre Centre. Renovated to the tune of $46.5 million just two years before Harvey, the Alley sustained an estimated $15 million in damages, but even so, the theater is eyeing a November reopening; Jones Hall for the Performing Arts is currently selling tickets for late-October performances, but the Wortham will remain closed for repairs until at least May 2018, and Theater District underground parking facilities are closed for the foreseeable future.
The Houston Museum District fared better, but that’s not to say it came away unscathed. “While several Museum District institutions had some water damage, collections, exhibitions, and libraries were well protected by dedicated staff and good advance planning,” says Houston Museum District executive director Julie Farr. “It is the staff, freelancers, and independent artists that have been severely impacted with loss of housing, vehicles, wages, and studios.” The Texas Cultural Emergency Response Alliance and Harvey Arts Recovery provided (and continue to provide) workshops and resources to help this vulnerable segment of the population get back on its feet, and those in the community who could offer assistance to others did so without hesitation. “The arts community came together quickly and responsively to Hurricane Harvey, not only for their own organizations and people, but also city-wide,” Farr says, with The Children’s Museum of Houston, Houston Center for Photography, and The Health Museum providing kid-friendly activities at shelters and art-making activities and photography programs at Congregation Emanu El’s Hurricane Harvey Day Camp.
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s Bayou Bend and Rienzi, 1940 Air Terminal Museum, Mercer Arboretum and Botanical Garden, and parts of Buffalo Bayou Park remain closed (though the 1940 Air Terminal Museum is slated to reopen in October), but all Houston Museum District institutions have reopened, many with special activities and promotions. Here, Parr outlines what’s on the calendar:
The Health Museum is offering one free admission for every four non-perishable food items to donate to the Houston Food Bank. Houston Center for Photography (HCP) also collected donations for the Houston Food Bank and is taking in gently-used cameras for school photography programs.
Asia Society Texas Center is promoting food donations and from September 23 to December 31, offering complimentary entrance to their Wondrous Worlds exhibition.
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is offering $5 tickets to Paint the Revolution: Mexican Modernism 1910-1950 through October 1 and has been providing free gallery and studio experiences to hundreds of HISD elementary students.
The Children’s Museum of Houston is collecting school supplies and HISD uniforms while offering free admission to families in transition from shelters.
Rothko Chapel is open and free 365 days a year and providing special programs every Wednesday from 12 to 1pm through the end of October to support healing as we individually and collectively discover new ways to work and serve together in the days ahead.
The Happiest States in America
What makes us happy? What is happiness, anyway? The most recent attempt to define and quantify the intangible comes courtesy of financial website WalletHub, which assembled a team of experts to rank the 50 U.S. states in terms of contentment, based on relevant research in three categories: emotional and physical well-being, work environment, and community and environment. Per WalletHub’s Richie Bernardo, “previous studies have found that good economic, emotional, physical, and social health are all key to a well-balanced and fulfilled life,” and this one aimed “to determine where Americans exhibit the best combination of these factors.” You don’t need to relocate to reap the benefits—that sense of satisfaction just might be contagious for visitors. #1 MINNESOTA The Land of 10,000 Lakes ranked in the top five in all three of the survey’s happiness categories for a first-place finish. That fresh water must be cleansing—residents get plenty of sleep, love to volunteer, and report low divorce rates, and the North Star State is the fourth-safest in the country. Minneapolis and its art, culture, and food scenes may grab the headlines, but over the years, Minnesota has been a perennial favorite in our Coolest Small Towns contests, and it also hosts one of the best state fairs in the country. #2 UTAH The Beehive State took top honors in the survey’s work environment category and its community and environment category, bumping it up to second on the list (although it did poorly in the emotional and physical well-being category). Perhaps unsurprisingly, given its natural splendor and access to premiere hiking and skiing, it has one of the best sports-participation rates—and the fewest hours worked. Take full advantage of the state’s outdoor amenities and plan an epic road trip to Utah's unparalleled national parks. #3 HAWAII The closest place Americans have to paradise may not have ranked #1 overall, but it shouldn’t come as a shock that Aloha State residents scored highest in emotional and physical well-being, with the lowest rates of adult depression in the U.S. Let that hang-loose, shaka attitude rub off on you as you explore the islands: From volcanoes, beaches, and jungles to shaved-ice and poke stands, there’s something for everyone. And we offer the ultimate Hawaii insider's tips, so take a deep breath and say ahhhh. #4 CALIFORNIA Second only to Hawaii in terms of emotional and physical well-being, the Golden State earns its moniker with low rates of depression and high rates of sports participation—not to mention its multicultural cities, pristine coastline, and gorgeous views. The road trip wasn’t invented with the Pacific Coast Highway in mind, but it may as well have been, with classic routes tailor-made for those with a restless streak. Check out the Ventura County Coast, spend a long weekend in Monterey, or fall in love with San Francisco all over again. #5 NEBRASKA Those Cornhuskers know a thing or two about living a well-balanced life, getting in their 40 winks while juggling volunteer opportunities and steady work, with the state boasting one of the lowest long-term unemployment rates in the country. Thanks to its museums, eateries, sports fandom, and reasonable prices, the city of Lincoln earned a spot on our 2017 list of Best Budget Destinations in America, but there’s more to Nebraska than its capital. Drive through the heartland and visit the Sandhills region, or tour around the state and take in its pioneer history; either way, you’ll be stretching your dollar as far as it’ll go.
Want to Live Overseas? Head to One of These 5 Countries
What traveler hasn’t gone on vacation, fallen just a little bit in love with a new locale, and fantasized about picking up and moving? It’s not hard to see the upside of expat life, but those truly considering taking the leap can’t afford to wear rose-colored glasses—not all destinations were created equal. For insight into what it’s really like to live abroad, this year’s Expat Insider study ranks 65 countries on factors, ranging from feeling welcome to family well-being, based on more than 12,500 expats’ experiences. Here, the five locations that offer the warmest welcome to long-term residents. #1 Bahrain Immigrants make up about half the total population of Bahrain, and they seem to be flocking there for good reason. Expats named this archipelago in the Persian Gulf the best overall destination and the easiest place to settle, even without speaking the language—25 percent of local survey respondents said they started to feel at home right away. With a capital city boasting a mix of avant garde and traditional architecture, a lively food scene, and a dynamic artistic community, it’s a country that extends a warm welcome. Culture vultures should be sure to check out Manama’s postmodern museum or catch a show at the third-largest theater in the Middle East, while those with a historical bent should see Beit Sheikh Isa Bin Ali Al Khalifa, a circa 1800 home in Muharraq Island that gives a glimpse of ruling-class life in the time before oil. There’s also Bahrain Fort, built by the Portuguese in the 16th century, and the lesser-visited Arad Fort, built by the Bedouins a hundred years earlier, not to mention mosques, markets, and malls galore. Don’t miss: The Tree of Life, a 400-year-old mesquite thriving in the desert. #2 Costa Rica For folks unwilling to give up a social circle in exchange for warm sun and sandy beaches, Costa Rica is the place to be. Known for its sustainable adventure travel and pura vida perspective, this Central American country claimed the runner-up slot with its gregarious population, a painless acclimatization process, high quality of life, and family-friendly atmosphere. And with greater biodiversity than America and Europe combined, plus environmental protections for more than a quarter of the country, Costa Rica is a wildlife enthusiast’s paradise. Scope out monkeys, sloths, tropical birds, and frogs in one of the many national parks, or combine your love of animals with a volunteer stint at a rescue center on the Caribbean coast. It’s not all eco-tourism—the capital of San José, with its neoclassical theater and jade museum, provides a respite from all that nature—but there’s no shortage of outdoor endeavors here, from surfing in Pavones to white-water rafting in Turrialba. Don’t miss: Volcán Arenal, a recently active, resting volcano, located in a national park rife with hiking trails and lava fields. #3 Mexico A perennial expat favorite, Mexico has appeared in the survey’s top five since its inception in 2014, and this year, America’s south-of-the-border neighbor takes third place—even with a few points docked for healthcare and safety. With 74 percent reporting general satisfaction with their financial situation, respondents raved about the low cost of living, the ease of settling in, great weather, amazing food, and a welcoming population, all of which are a boon to visitors and residents alike. Check the state department’s advisories before you book, obviously, but try not to let a bad reputation cloud your vision—this geographically diverse country rewards the intrepid traveler. Explore the sprawling metropolis of Mexico City, befriend artists in San Miguel de Allende, take a train through the Copper Canyon, or chill out on the Yucatán Peninsula or the Riviera Maya—and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Don’t miss: The ancient temples of Palenque, awe-inspiring Mayan ruins in the middle of the jungle. #4 Taiwan Last year’s winner dropped a few spots in 2017, but Taiwan still ranked second in the overall quality of life index, taking top honors in the health and well-being category, earning great reviews for its transportation infrastructure, and claiming the highest percentage of expats who are completely satisfied with their healthcare. Though its environmental quality is cited as average, thanks to rapid industrialization, this island nation off the coast of China has no shortage of natural beauty. Hike the stunning Taroko Gorge (or for more serious climbers, summit the main peak at Snow Mountain), go diving at Kenting National Park, a reserve spanning the southern tip of the island, or jump in a hot spring in Wulai. And when you’ve had enough of the great outdoors, Taipei awaits. Between temple visits and shopping on Dihua Street, set aside time for the National Palace Museum’s impressive collection of Chinese art, take the elevator up to the 89th-floor observatory of Taipei 101, once the world’s tallest building, and grab a snack at the bustling Shillin Night Market. Don’t miss: The 19th-century Dalongdong Baoan Temple, a beautifully restored, UNESCO-recognized archetype of historic Taiwanese architecture. #5 Portugal Crowning the quality of living index for its moderate temperatures and abundance of leisure activities, Portugal rounds out this year’s top five. Expats here are a happy bunch—93 percent of respondents say they’re satisfied with life on the Iberian Peninsula, rating it first in terms of friendliness and feeling welcome, and literally no one had a bad thing to say about the country’s climate or weather. For visitors seeking fun and sun in an approachable atmosphere, that’s good news. In Lisbon, meander through the narrow streets of the Alfama district, hit the beach in Cascais and the wine bars in Bairro Alto (making sure to save room for pastéis de nata, those much-beloved custard tarts found all over the the city, most famously on the Rua de Belém), and cruise the miradouros, a collection of terraces overlooking the city, for unbeatable skyline views; in Porto, gawk at the gold leaf–laden baroque interiors of the Igreja de São Francisco, wander the medieval alleys of Ribeira in the city’s historic center, and tour a port-wine cellar or plan a daytrip to the justly renowned Douro Valley wine region. Don’t miss: Sintra, a dreamy hillside town that’s home to colorful villas, lavish palaces, and the ruins of a 10th-century Moorish castle.
Hurricane Help From Airbnb and HomeAway
The immediate danger posed by Hurricane Harvey may have passed, but the regional crisis in Texas and Louisiana is far from over, and Hurricane Irma is approaching Florida and the Caribbean. As the shelters in the Houston area empty out, many residents are returning home to discover that their onetime sanctuaries have been damaged beyond repair, and the devastation runs deep: Thousands of people in Texas and Louisiana have been displaced, with FEMA-funded hotel rooms in short supply and renters in a particularly precarious situation. (In the past week alone, hundreds in the Houston area have been served with eviction notices.) Help often comes from unexpected sources, though, and vacation-rental sites such as Airbnb are stepping into the breach. Hundreds of hosts from Corpus Christi to New Orleans are opening their doors to evacuees and relief workers—and they’re doing it for free. Under a disaster-response policy implemented in the wake of 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, Airbnb is encouraging hosts in the affected and surrounding areas to list their homes at $0 until September 25, and in return, the company is waiving all booking fees. Nearly 1,000 properties have been offered to date, and demand is high, with many vacancies filled soon after they’re posted. At last count, some 500 urgent accommodations were available on the website’s dedicated page. “We are proud to see our Airbnb community coming together to help their neighbors in need,” says Kellie Bentz, Airbnb’s head of global disaster response and relief. The hurricane hit close to home for the Texas-based HomeAway, and in response, the site is giving its property owners and managers the option of renting to survivors for free or at a discount through the end of the month, waiving service and booking fees in the process. The company, which also runs VRBO and VacationRentals.com, has set up a temporary-housing page for those who want to make their homes available, and so far, more than 100 have opted in. For good samaritans who may not be able to pitch in physically or monetarily, offering up their space is tangible way to offer a helping hand. “I personally don’t have the financial funds to donate as much as I’d like to,” Austin resident and Airbnb host Edith Flores told The New York Times on Sunday. “This is one thing I can do.”
5 Reasons Why We Love Southwest's September Fare Sale
Are you inspired by our recent fall travel chat on Facebook and ready to pack up and go? Southwest’s current fare sale (good for travel through December if you book by Sept. 21) will enable that urge. Don’t expect to fly around the major holidays, but if you’re in the market for a weekend getaway, you may be in luck—cheap flights to some of our favorite destinations are up for grabs. Here, five especially great deals we love. Chicago to Austin, from $94 Like a booster shot for seasonal affective disorder, a serious dose of sunshine at the beginning of the season can help ward off the February blues, so head south and soak up some vitamin D before that Chicago winter really kicks in. Check out the Austin City Limits Music Festival at the beginning of October, or go on a five-hour meat binge with the Texas Monthly BBQ Fest on Nov. 5. If you’re not willing to plan your trip around a one-off day of carnivorous consumption, that’s OK—it’s always taco weather in this food-crazy town. Dallas to Boston, from $78 When the Texas heat has you dreaming of colorful leaves and crisp autumn air, consider New England. Boston makes a great jumping-off point for a fall-foliage tour, and the city is a destination in its own right. Catch a game at Fenway Park, channel your inner history nerd and play colonial-landmark bingo, have a bowl of clam chowder at Yankee Lobster, and mingle with the college crowd in Cambridge. We like dem apples very much, thank you. Indianapolis to NYC, from $89 For those who can’t get enough of that noel, New York in December is a must-do trip. Rockefeller Center’s tree-lighting ceremony kicks off the festivities on November 29, and the Fifth Avenue department-store window displays appear soon after, leaving holiday lovers with plenty of non-blackout dates to explore a city that feels just a wee bit softer under those twinkling lights. You won’t escape the cold, but you’ll definitely get into the spirit of the season. Los Angeles to Denver, from $93 Endless summer bumming you out? Swap sand for slopes with a stint in the Mile High City, a veritable paradise for outdoor-adventure enthusiasts. Denver boasts miles of hiking and mountain-biking trails, white-water rafting excursions, and, of course, ample opportunities to ski and snowboard in the nearby Rockies. There are even disc-golf courses for those who want to take it a little easier. If indoor activities are more your thing, may we suggest the Great American Beer Festival in early October? With 3,800 beers from 800 breweries, you’ll be sure to find something to wet your whistle. Washington, D.C., to Orlando, from $92 Orlando’s amusement parks hit peak capacity around the holidays, but if you absolutely have to plan a family vacation around the kids’ school schedules, at least you’ll get to Florida at a discount. When you book in December, do so knowing that the crowds will be nuts, and embrace the chaos. Our Disney survival tips are your secret weapon—they’ll help you keep your sanity on the ground, so don’t forget to bookmark and read before you go. All rates are starting prices, one-way, as quoted on southwest.com.