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Nations appeal for visitors, but hesitations linger



Published: Sat, January 15, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Countries fear loss of hundreds of millions of dollars from foreign visitors.

SINGAPORE (AP) -- 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 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.

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

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

In Thailand, resorts in the Khao Lak region were nearly wiped out. 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.

Hundreds of foreign tourists are among the dead in Thailand.

Avoiding the aftermath

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, which were completely unaffected by the tsunami. Thai tourism authorities say the drop-off could cost the country's economy about $1 billion in 2005.

Flights cut

Regional carriers are responding to the decline by suspending flights to resort areas.

SilkAir, a subsidiary of Singapore Airlines, has cut flights to Phuket from three to two per day, and halved flights to the nearby resort area of Krabi.

Air Asia, a Malaysia-based budget airline, has canceled daily flights from Singapore to Phuket. Thai Airways plans to cancel daily flights from Singapore to Phuket beginning Jan. 15.

"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.

Undamaged resorts

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, 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."

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.




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