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The Amazing Race 3, Episode 1 (2 October 2002)

Everglades, FL (USA) - Miami, FL (USA) - Ciudad México, D.F. (Mexico) - Tequesquitengo, Morelos (Mexico) - Amacuzac, Morelos (Mexico)

“The world is waiting for you!”

With these words, in the middle of the Everglades in South Florida, host Phil Keoghan kicked off the third season of the CBS-TV reality show about travel around the world, The Amazing Race.

For those of you keeping score, the first episode of this season mostly consisted of unsafe driving, at race speeds, through unwittingly endangered normal traffic. It ended with the elimination of “Team Soccer Moms” as the last couple to arrive at this week’s destination, an ultra-exclusive hotel not far from Mexico City.

But more than any specifics of this week’s episode, what excites me most is that CBS’s market researchers still believe the concept of the show — ordinary Americans taking the trip of a lifetime around the world — still has sufficiently widespread and mainstream interest to make the show a success.

Do enough people still want to travel around the world to attract an audience for a prime-time “reality” television show? CBS isn’t stupid, and I think in this case they are right.

Last week I was in Oklahoma City, researching how tourism and attitudes there have changed since the Patriots’ Day, 1995, bombing of the Federal Building by (white, American) terrorists. I’ll talk more about the lessons from this case study in the coming weeks, but one of the most interesting things I was told, independently, by three different staff members of the Oklahoma City Convention and Visitors Bureau, was that visitors’ attitudes toward the city, and their interest in traveling there, actually recovered from the bombing much more quickly than did the attitudes of the city and its officials toward a resumption of normal tourism. The Convention and Visitors Bureau therefore lagged significantly behind the recovery of interest by travellers in visiting the site of the bombing and in resuming travel to Oklahoma City for other business and pleasure purposes.

The same thing, I think, is happening now in New York City and throughout the USA: Both the media and the travel industry — terrorized (quite literally) by the overall decline in travel — have been slow to recognize the countertrend toward increased interest and desire for international travel on the part of a significant minority of the public.

“What are you saying?”, you may ask. “Weren’t you talking just last week about how traumatized most travellers are?” Yes, I was. But the USA is a big country, in a big world. It’s quite common that, within both this country and the world, large groups of people are be moving in opposite directions at the same time. Most people, in the USA at least, are substantially less willing to travel than they were last year. For many other people, however, the events of 11 September 2001 were a powerful wake-up call about the impossibility of isolationism, the importance of international understanding, and the educational value, even essentiality, of world travel.

The producers of “The Amazing Race”, for example, mistakenly assumed that after 11 September 2001, no one would want to visit or think about New York City. So the second season of “The Amazing Race” avoided New York City entirely.

Nothing, of course, could have been farther from the truth. “Ground Zero” — the site of the collapse of the World Trade Center — has become the place in all New York City that visitors are most eager to see. And New York City, especially Manhattan, has only improved its image with the rest of the country and the world (especially with respect to New Yorkers’ traditional, but entirely undeserved, reputation as unfriendly, unhelpful, and impersonal).

Clearly, the public wasn’t as scared of travel, or of New York City, as CBS expected they’d be. CBS seems to have figured that out, and the new season of “The Amazing Race” does a complete about-face.

One of the twelve couples in the cast is John Vito and Jill, whose best friend and brother (“the third member of our team”) was a stock and securities brokerage executive who died in the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001. Jill and her brother were rejected when they applied for “The Amazing Race 1”, so it’s pretty clear that the producers’ purpose in selecting her and John Vito this season was deliberately to bring the events of 11 September 2001 into the show. John Vito and Jill were the only couple featured in CBS’ advance publicity for this season. And this week’s opening episode of “The Amazing Race 3” features an interview with Jill about her brother, illustrated with a photo of the gap in the Manhattan skyline where the World Trade Center used to be.

Jill’s comments about how and why she’s more motivated to travel now than she was before 11 September 2001 echo what I’ve heard from travellers across the USA, at my seminars and by e-mail, in the last year. If you’re still eager to travel, you’re far from alone. (And, by the way, if you’re one of those who hasn’t been terrorized, you can already apply for “The Amazing Race 4”, to be broadcast in Spring 2003, on the CBS Web site.)

I had been expecting to fly to New York the night of 11 September 2001, to discuss “The Amazing Race” on CBS “The Early Show”. In the event, broadcasts of “The Amazing Race” were postponed by two weeks, “The Early Show” shifted its focus to hard news, and that trip never happened. But on the first trip I did take after September 11th, a campus speaking tour in Utah in October 2001, attendance at my travel planning seminars was as high as ever, sometimes higher, as it has remained throughout the last year. When a local travel bookstore, Easy Going, held a panel discussion for people interested in international travel after 11 September 2001, they had to turn would-be travellers away for lack of standing room.

Students have been especially eager to travel, as part of their education, since 11 September 2001. Study abroad programs and the Peace Corps, for example, both reported increases in the last year in the numbers of applicants to, and participants in, their programs overseas. And I hear from more and more travellers of all ages, in the last year, who explicitly recognize learning as a major goal of a trip around the world.

The larger global trends are also more encouraging than many in the USA might imagine. Because so few people from the USA travel abroad, compared to people from other comparably wealthy countries, the USA makes a disproportionately small contribution to total world travel numbers. So it shouldn’t be surprising — although it probably is to many — but despite the dramatic downturn in international travel from the USA, the number of international air travellers from all countries around the world is expected by the airlines to be only 2-3 percent less for 2002 than it was for 2001. Most people who used to travel still are travelling. What’s more, for many of the Americans who aren’t travelling (and some of those from other countries), the major issue isn’t fear or terrorism. It’s the inconvenience and potential for harassment inherent in the measures being adopted (ostensibly) to counter terrorism.

It’s too early to tell what will happen in “The Amazing Race 3”, and whether it will mirror the growing recognition that world travel is a path to education as well as the big fun. But the first episode of the season gives me hope that it will bring into the open at least some of the issues on viewers minds about travel after 11 September 2001. Let’s hope that it does so, and lives up to its claim to be “reality” TV about travel around the world.

Whether you travel the world on TV, or on your own, “Bon voyage!” to all.

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