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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 March, 2005, 16:59 GMT
High hopes for tsunami-hit tourist resorts
By Jorn Madslien
BBC News business reporter

Three months on from the tsunami disaster, the rebuilding of hotels and infrastructure in the hit areas is well under way.

There has been a significant drop in international travel to affected tourist destinations such as Phuket in Thailand, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.
James Murray
Visa International Asia Pacific

But a major challenge remains: to restore confidence among international tourists.

To do so is crucial since "many of the tsunami-hit economies rely on tourism", points out John Koldowski, strategic intelligence director of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (Pata).

But it is an uphill struggle.

"As a direct result of the tsunami there is a risk that 9% of international travellers planning a holiday in 2005 have switched their travel plans to other regions," says a report published this month.

The "Post-Tsunami global travel intentions" report, commissioned by the intergovernmental World Tourism Organisation (WTO), highlights how those worst hit by the tsunami have also been the ones hit by the sharpest falls in visitor numbers.

"Since the tsunami disaster, there has been a significant drop in international travel to affected tourist destinations such as Phuket in Thailand, Sri Lanka and the Maldives," says James Murray, executive with Visa International Asia Pacific which co-authored the report.

Put your questions on tsunami aid to the UN's Emergency Relief Co-ordinator, Jan Egeland.

This, he says, has "severely damaging the livelihood of many local communities dependent on tourism revenues".

Other countries, meanwhile, have escaped pretty much unscathed.

"Contrary to the general perception, the tourist arrival in [India] has increased after the tsunami disaster," says Renuka Chodhury, minister of state for tourism in India - where the sector is the third-largest earner of foreign exchange.

Everyday life

Asia's tourism industry is particularly keen to attract those who feel it would be inappropriate to arrive in a tsunami-affected resort at a time when the locals are still grieving.

Tsunami impact on tourists still intent on visiting Asia
Phuket beach
65% say no impact on travel plans to the region as a whole
52% say no impact on travel plans to affected areas
30% say it has deterred them from visiting affected areas
Source: World Tourism Organisation

"Tsunami-affected Indian Ocean destinations need visitors again," insists Pata communications director Ken Scott.

To hammer home the point, the WTO has produced 20,000 stickers with the slogan 'Tsunami - tourism helps recovery'.

The international tourism industry recognises that altruism is not the only reason why tourists are staying away.

Travellers also worry about health and sanitation, about the quality of infrastructure, and about the state of tourist facilities and service levels.

Their concerns are unfounded, tourism officials insist.

"These problems of perception are an issue not only for those locations directly affected by the tsunami, but for many others in the region," says Visa's Mr Murray.

Among the tourists who are still coming to Asia, many are choosing destinations away from those affected by the tsunami.

But there is a parallel trend which is hitting destinations such as Hong Kong and Singapore. A fall in the number of tourists coming to Asia has caused a fall in tourism in popular hub or stopover destinations.

Visa estimates that the fall-off in travellers will cost Asia $3bn in tourism receipts this year, with the burden evenly split between affected and non-affected areas.

Companies hit

Then there are the non-Asian victims, namely travel agents and airlines in other countries.

The tsunami has failed to inhibit the growth of tourism to Asia, which continues to expand vigorously and which has already proved in past years its remarkable ability to react to changes
Francesco Frangialli
WTO's secretary general

In some cases, their customers have merely travelled to other destinations in their catalogues, though specialist Asia operatorshave lost out to competitors offering trips to other parts of the world.

First Choice, which says the tsunami cost it 1m in returning tourists and ticket refunds alone, has seen an 18% rise in sales of summer holidays, buoyed by a 32% rise in demand for long-haul.

Yet First Choice's sales to tsunami-affected areas remain lower than they were last year.

Moreover, with consumers being notoriously fickle, many who had planned to go to Asia will have cancelled their holidays altogether, only to spend their money on televisions, sofas or cars instead.

Tourists to return

To lure travellers back, several tour operators, including Premier, Thomas Cook, Kuoni, and Jewel In The Crown, have been offering notable price reductions.

Carriers, such as Sri Lankan Airlines, which saw its annual profits erased by the disaster, have also cut prices.

Most agree they are dealing with a short-term problem and that a recovery will soon reinforce Asia's importance as a tourism destination.

The WTO even says the tsunami could provide a long-term boost, by increasing awareness of the region's destinations.

Pata predicts that every destination in the Asia Pacific region, including those affected by the tsunami, will see growth in the number of tourists arriving between this year and 2007.

Average growth should be 11%, with individual estimates ranging from 4% in Pakistan to almost 21% in Malaysia, Pata says.

WTO's secretary general Francesco Frangialli agrees.

"The tsunami has failed to inhibit the growth of tourism to Asia, which continues to expand vigorously and which has already proved in past years its remarkable ability to react to changes."

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