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Houston Tourism Bounces Back

By Maya Stanton
September 29, 2017
Houston highway sign
trekandshoot/Dreamstime
Considering a trip to Houston this fall? Go for it. The city may be in hurricane-recovery mode, but it’s definitely open for business.

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:

Dining

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.

Sports

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.

Arts

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.

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Want to Live Overseas? Head to One of These 5 Countries

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Inspiration

The Happiest States in America

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Inspiration

My Totally Unplugged Vacation: No Smartphone. No Talking. No Booze.

Having grown up in a half-Thai family, I was familiar with the basic concepts of Buddhism and had been practicing meditation since I was small, yet it wasn’t until I was in my 30s and living in Boston that I first heard of the Vipassana method. A friend mentioned she was attending a retreat. It got me curious.  The free courses offered by Vipassana centers around the world include lodging, food, and instruction in the Vipassana meditation method, popularized by S.N. Goenka, a Burmese teacher. Though secular in practice, it’s based on the original technique taught by Gautama Buddha. All the centers are in rural areas and their courses generally fill up months in advance. Wait lists are long.  Rather than focusing on repeated mantras or breathing, like many other meditation techniques, Vipassana trains the mind to see things “as they really are” and to break free from the cycle of stress, anger, and dissatisfaction in which so many of us find ourselves trapped. 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The other rules include no intoxicants, no stealing, and “no killing.” A true practitioner of Buddhism is a strict vegetarian, after all.  I'd never done anything remotely approaching 100 hours of silent meditation, completely cut off from the outside world. As you can imagine, I found the prospect daunting. It’s made clear in the course description that Vipassana is not “a rest cure,” nor “a holiday,” but rather something more akin to a mental boot camp. But I was at a crossroads in my life, having recently lost my job and then, shortly after, ended a long-term relationship and moved out of the apartment we had shared. It’s never easy to drop out of the world for ten days, but finding myself unemployed, unattached, and essentially homeless, it seemed like as good a time as any to give it a try. When I arrived at the center, located in a remote part of Western Massachusetts, I was surprised to find not a rustic cabin resembling an abandoned kids’ summer camp, but a brand-new facility where I was assigned to a sparse, but comfortable room with a private bathroom. I relinquished my phone and chatted with the other students before we were plunged into Noble Silence. There were 80 of us, half women and half men, though we were separated at the check-in point. There were several young Thai women and older Indian women, your expected crunchy hippie types, a twitchy woman who appeared to be on the verge of some sort of mental breakdown, a few bubbly young girls from France, and a female surgeon who stopped meditating halfway through the course. She called her husband to complain the second the noble silence was broken. I was assigned a space in the group meditation hall and we settled in for the course introduction. I immediately noticed a potent patchouli odor coming from somewhere in front of me. It was irritating because we’d been specifically instructed not to bring “any perfumes or strongly scented toiletries.” Also, patchouli is revolting. In a brief video, Mr. Goenka welcomed us to the course and explained the schedule and its purpose. A rotund, elderly man, he told us the story of how he went from a wealthy but miserable businessman in Burma to a devotee of Vipassana meditation in a peculiar, slightly Transylvanian drawl. The next day we were awakened at 4am by the sound of a gong and then, as preparation before starting true Vipassana meditation, we focused on careful observation of our breath. By the end of the day, after ten hours of meditation, I was surprised to realize that I spend most of my time not living in the present, but thinking of the past or the future. It was also clear that trying to clear your mind of all thoughts is like trying to wrestle a greased pig into a coin purse. By the second evening, my senses were so heightened that I could tell that the patchouli smell was coming from the curly-haired girl one row up and one row to the right. Despite that sensory assault, I was feeling quite calm until videotaped Goenka returned with an announcement: “There is no dinner here.” I didn’t miss my phone or the Internet at all. Wearing baggy PJs all day was actually quite pleasant, and I had no problem sitting cross-legged on the floor for hours on end, but no dinner for ten days? A slight panic started to rise in my throat. Or maybe it was just the hunger setting in. By the third day, it became clear that men are truly the gassier of the sexes. (Or they just make less effort to hold it in). But far more distracting was the construction work going on just outside the meditation hall—perhaps an additional test of our resolve? On Day 4 I accidentally poured boiling water over my hand at tea time but somehow managed to maintain my silence. As I sat meditating afterwards, I realized that while I could still feel the burn, it no longer hurt—or rather, the pain didn’t bother me. This concrete demonstration of the power of the mind over the body and perception was a compelling epiphany. As the days passed and hours of meditation piled up, I came to recognize the sounds of coughing, hammering, belching, and farting as mere vibrations, rippling through the air and my body, and understood how pointless it was to let them bother me. But at night my stomach grumbled, and when I heard some of the other women sneaking out to their cars after lights-out, I imagined they were shoving contraband Luna bars into their mouths. On Day 6, empty spots around the room made it clear that during the night several people had “done a legger,” as the Irish say. Whether it was hunger, boredom, discomfort, or overwhelming urges to kill that had chased them off, I’ll never know. I was having occasional wistful thoughts of coffee and margaritas, but was determined to stick it out. As Day 7 dawned, I felt strong and serene. While my mind would still occasionally wander like a naughty monkey, I could do mental TSA scans of my body from front-to-back, top-to-bottom, any which way. At a certain point, I even felt, as hokey ask it might sound, the confines of my body dissolve and hum with the energy of each of my cells, in rhythm with the energy pulsing in the air all around. If you’d asked me a week before if I’d ever felt my body’s energy at one with that of the universe, I’d have given you some serious side-eye. As the end of the course drew near, I grew fearful of re-entering society after having made eye contact with only a robin in over a week, and with senses so heightened that I could detect the change in temperature in the air I inhaled—cooler as it went in one nostril, warmer as it went out. Would my head explode when I was surrounded by people, cars, traffic, the chaos of the city? On the last day, we were released from silence and informed that it was “Metta Day,” a day of “loving kindness,” which the two girls from France celebrated by having a screaming fight in their room. Though my middle name is “Metta” (no, really—it is), I freely admit that I’ve often had trouble maintaining feelings of affection towards all living beings. But in the week after the course, I cuddled a cat (an animal that I not only detest but to which I am severely allergic) and was completely unfazed by an accidental run-in with a toxic ex. But though this unearthly composure and beneficence would not last forever, I came away from the course with a heightened awareness and invaluable tools for the rest of my life—the ability, whenever I should wish to utilize it—to live each moment with truth and clarity, and the power to determine my own happiness.

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