Special Report: Tsunami Aftermath

Medium- to long-term effects unknown

By: Norman Sklarewitz

All across south Asia, the unprecedented international effort to relieve the human suffering and repair the physical damage caused by the massive tsunami of Dec. 26 continues around the clock. At the same time, the tourism industries of the countries hit by the great tidal wave assess the staggering economic cost to them.

There’s no question that many beach resorts popular with Western tourists suffered a dreadful loss of life, as well as the destruction of popular resort hotels and much of the local support infrastructure.

Overall, though, destinations and properties most used by U.S. tour operators seem to have been in locations that were spared the most serious destruction and loss of life. As a result, while not minimizing the suffering and damage, some of the nations battered by the killer walls of water have moved aggressively to reach tour operators, retail agents and the traveling public with reassuring messages.

“We face an educational challenge,” said Santi Chudintra, director of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, in Los Angeles.

He refuted news reports that gave the impression, for example, that the entire resort island of Phuket was essentially destroyed. Of the 33,587 hotel rooms on Phuket and in the mainland cities of Phang Nga and Rabi, he pointed out that some 53 percent are open and in service. These are in such popular beach spots as Karon, Kata, Patong and Ka Lim, among others. Chudintra predicted that even damaged properties will be rebuilt soon, and that within three months tourists will begin to return to the resort island.

Agreeing with that assessment is Andrew K. Miller, senior vice president, Pacific Delight World Tours, in New York City. His company has been selling Thailand for some 34 years and describes the destination as “hot.”

“If there is aggressive marketing and education, near normal tourism will return to Thailand and some other impacted areas in from three to six months,” he predicted. But it won’t just happen by itself, he cautioned. “Countries and tourism organizations have to get in front of the curve and deal proactively. Everyone has to do a lot more in terms of education.”

Miller noted that his company did not suffer a single true cancellation in the wake of the disaster. Clients on the various 12- and 18-day Asia tours either postponed their departures and rebooked for later dates or took such offered alternative destinations as China or Australia.

“We didn’t lose any business,” he said.

Thailand’s Chudintra said: “Phuket is some 60 kilometers long and perhaps 40 kilometers wide and only the western beachfront area was affected. But many people thought the entire island was totally damaged.”

From its Bangkok headquarters, the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) made those same points, saying quite specifically that: “This is not an Asian crisis; it is a crisis confined to some parts of the Indian Ocean. It is business as usual across most of Asia and in most parts of the affected countries.”

James Ferguson, PATA’s director for North America, urged agents to let their customers know that trips are going throughout the rest of the region.

“Visitors are likely to receive an extra warm welcome,” he predicted.

He suggested, too, that agents check the PATA Web site for daily updates.

To get the word out that it is quickly recovering and ready to receive visitors, the Tourism Authority of Thailand already planned “crisis recovery and marketing campaigns” to include participation at ITB in March. Fam trips for key agents and operators are already being considered.

For its part, the ASEAN Tourism Association, organizer of the ASEAN Tourism Forum (ATF), plans to go ahead with its gathering on the Malaysia island of Langkawi Jan. 21-29. Some 1,500 delegates are expected along with 400 suppliers who will participate in the Asean Travel Exchange (TRAVEX).

>