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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Tsunami wreaks havoc on tourism

On Jan. 7, tourists sunbathe on Patong Beach in southern Thailand, which was hit by the tsunami on Dec. 26.
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Christopher Bodeen and Beth J. Harpaz Associated Press

Tsunami-wracked Asia has a new appeal to would-be helpers: Take a vacation.

“If you have not planned a visit, please consider booking a trip. If you wish to make a difference, visit,” the president of the Bangkok-based Pacific Asia Travel Association, Peter de Jong, said in a recent appeal to travelers.

Images of the killer waves crashing into Asian beach resorts have badly spooked the tourists those areas rely so heavily upon for income. The tsunami that took more than 150,000 lives devastated Indonesia’s Sumatra island, but also wrought havoc on tourism-dependent coastal communities in Thailand, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

Perceptions may be more damaging to business than the actual devastation to the resorts. Most are receiving visitors again and even in the worst-affected areas operators say they plan to be fully up and running by Easter.

“The trend is again more people coming in. Now it’s just a matter of getting the right message out to the visitors,” said Ahmed Shaheed, government spokesman for the Maldives, where the $200 million tourism industry constitutes 33 percent of the country’s gross national product.

Some travel industry experts expect the word to spread fairly quickly.

“It’s not like SARS or avian flu, which are ongoing events,” said Andrew Harper, who publishes a monthly newsletter about luxury travel called Andrew Harper’s Hideaway Report.

“I think most travelers realize this is one of those rare events that happen every 100 years,” Harper said, adding: “It was a terrible disaster but once it starts fading, I think travel is going to return to normal.”

“People understand that the possibility of getting caught in something like this is very small,” said Juergen Steinmetz, chairman of the International Council of Tourism Partners.

“I’m in Pattaya, and it’s absolutely blooming here,” he said. “It’s like nothing ever happened. The beaches are nice, they’re clean, the waters are calm.

“This is not expected to happen in our lifetime again, but I’ve talked to a lot of tourism agencies in the region that are unaffected – like Bali and Malaysia – and they fear that tourism might be going down because people don’t understand the geography.”

Across the region, tourism infrastructure was swamped, crushed, swept out to sea – but largely survived.

While the Maldives was inundated by the Dec. 26 disaster, 64 out of 87 resorts are still in business, Shaheed said. But occupancy rates that are usually near 100 percent are down by half, he said.

In nearby Phuket, images shot by tourists of waves crashing into resorts were among the most dramatic of the disaster. Yet only 10 percent of rooms in the area are out of commission, officials said.

In Thailand, resorts in the Khao Lak region were nearly wiped out and hundreds of foreign tourists are among the dead.

Travelers appear unwilling to visit areas so recently touched by tragedy and where the aftermath is still being dealt with.

“People are avoiding the beach now,” said Clama Rocky of Eureka Travel in Singapore. “There’s just a worry about unpleasant things like coming across dead bodies.”

Tourist arrivals at the airport in Bangkok, Thailand’s capital, are down 27 percent. Hotel occupancy rates in the country’s south – usually around 80 percent at this time of year – have fallen to as little as 10 percent.

The tsunami hit during the peak tourism season in Thailand, when thousands of Europeans, many from Scandinavian countries, flee winter for the balmy shores of the Indian Ocean.

Cancellations have also hit Thailand’s east coast resorts such as Pattaya and Hua Hin that were completely unaffected by the tsunami. Thai tourism authorities say the dropoff could cost the country’s economy about $1 billion in 2005.

“Bookings for the beaches in Thailand are about as close to zero as they can get,” said Kevin Lim, an agent with East Asia travel in Singapore.

Although it suffered the largest loss of life, Indonesia’s tourism sector was relatively unaffected. Badly battered Aceh province has long been isolated by civil conflict and the main tourist draws of Bali and Lombok were well beyond the tsunami’s reach.

The devastation may actually be a boon to Bali. Large numbers of travelers are now opting to vacation there instead of Thailand, with Vietnam and Cambodia also picking up business, said Eureka’s Rocky.

India suffered more than 10,000 deaths in the tragedy, but its tourism industry was largely untouched.

In Sri Lanka, the tsunami damaged 56 hotels badly enough to force their closure. Yet 243 remain open and “ready to welcome tourists,” said Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne, CEO of hotel chain Jetwing Eco Holidays.

Tourism workers say the best way to help is to bring tourists back and restart the local economy, Wijeyeratne said.

In the Maldives, only six resorts suffered extensive damage and should be fully repaired in less than three months. The islands suffered 82 deaths with 26 people missing, but resorts suffered far less than outlying villages built more to provide cover from pirates than from the sea.

Total rebuilding in tourism and related sectors such as fishing will cost about $250 million, while damage to infrastructure totals about $1.3 billion, government spokesman Shaheed said.

Obtaining such funds will depend largely on how soon the visitors return, he said.

“You can still have a good holiday in the Maldives,” Shaheed said. “And, if you wish, you can even contribute to recovery.”

Geoffrey Lipman, president of the International Council of Tourism Partners and special adviser to the World Tourism Organization, said his organization is trying to “encourage people to focus on how tourism can help.

“It’s very difficult to say to people how they should or shouldn’t spend their leisure time,” he said. “But if people feel they can make a contribution by continuing their travel, then they should do it.”

But Lipman cautioned that “anybody contemplating travel here really has to spend twice as much time checking out what it is they are going to find at the other end. … If there’s ever a moment when someone involved in a vacation needs to doublecheck with a travel agent and tour operator, this is the moment.”