SOUTH ASIA Hoping for tourism rebound after tsunami
Many resort areas are already awaiting new visitors in the aftermath.
NEW YORK (AP) -- In the two weeks since the tsunami hit coastal Asia, Gate 1 Travel has sent about 50 Americans to Thailand on guided tours, with another 300 scheduled to depart in the next 90 days.
Only four people have canceled.
"Cancellations have been minimal or non-existent," said Marty Seslow, marketing director for Gate 1, a tour operator based in Glenside, Pa. "Not only have there been no cancellations, but people have been making new bookings in the past week. We've been pleasantly surprised."
Tourism officials are hoping other travelers respond to the tsunami the way most of Gate 1's customers did -- by maintaining plans to visit the region.
Tourist arrivals in Bangkok's international airport plunged 27 percent in the days after the tsunami, but Tourism and Sports Minister Sontaya Kunplome said the figures were likely to bounce back.
"I believe the fall of 27.4 percent was the bottom, as people were shocked from the recent event," he said.
Tourism had been booming in Thailand prior to the tsunami -- up 20 percent in 2004 compared to the previous year.
Few Americans killed
Hundreds of tourists were among more than 150,000 killed when a wall of water triggered by an earthquake swept through coastal Asia on Dec. 26.
As of Jan. 10, the dead included 37 Americans. Bob Whitley, president of the U.S. Tour Operators Association, said the United States experienced fewer casualties than some European countries because "the areas the tsunami hit are not areas Americans traditionally go to in Asia." Americans vacationing in Asia tend to prefer cultural sites and inland adventures over beaches, he added.
"You've got beaches in Hawaii, Cancun, the Caribbean and southern Florida much closer to home," he said. "Why go to the beach in Thailand if you can go to Cabo San Lucas or St. John? ... The U.S. packages that go to Southeast Asia, you're talking about Bangkok, the Taj Mahal -- those are not the affected areas."
One beach resort that does attract Americans is Bali, Whitley said, but although Indonesia was the hardest-hit country, with more than 100,000 deaths, Bali was not in the tsunami's path.
A rare disaster
Tourism officials hope the tsunami will not have a long-term or widespread impact on travel to the region.
"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.
"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. ... It was a terrible disaster, but once it starts fading, I think travel is going to return to normal."
Contributing with tourism
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. For most of these countries, tourism is one of the principal exports. For countries like the Maldives and Sri Lanka, it's been a way to attack poverty."
He added: "It's very difficult to say to people how they should or shouldn't spend their leisure time. But if people feel they can make a contribution by continuing their travel, then they should do it."
Harper said he has received e-mails from hotels in Phuket "saying, 'The beach is fine, come on over. Clean-up is done. We weren't severely damaged.'"
Steinmetz, reached by phone in the beach resort of Pattaya, Thailand, agreed that the disaster should not dissuade travelers from visiting Asian beaches.
"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."
Know the situation
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 double-check with a travel agent and tour operator, this is the moment."
Sandi Hughes, vice president of AAA Travel, concurred. "We're telling everyone, if they've already booked, check with a travel agent to find out the status of the property they're staying at.
"And if they haven't yet booked, they might consider a vacation to the area. Tourism is such an important part of the economy."
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