Mon, Jan 10, 2005 - Page 10 News List

Asian tourism weathers tsunami

BUSINESS AS USUAL The good news for operators is that holidaymakers are still picking Asian destinations, though tsunami victims are crying out for more custom

AFP , SINGAPORE

Thailand and Sri Lanka have been scarred, but tourism in Asia remains largely unhurt by the tsunami disaster despite the massive devastation of coastal areas, industry experts and operators said.

Booking cancelations have had the most impact on coastal areas of southwest Thailand, whose idyllic beaches were ravaged by quake-generated waves that left over 5,000 people dead, half of them Western holidaymakers.

Since 2001, the region's travel sector has weathered the fallout from international extremist violence, the deadly SARS virus and the bird flu health scare, and it is again confident of overcoming last month's calamity.

"Tourism is surprisingly business-as-usual," said Don Birch, chief executive of Abacus, Asia's biggest air ticketing and reservations company. "If you think about it, this is a humanitarian crisis, not an economic crisis. So in terms of travel, what we're seeing is that while business has obviously been affected in Thailand, overall travel is really not much changed."

Birch said bookings to Thailand fell 58 percent in the week ending Jan. 2, and plunged by 78 percent for Sri Lanka.

However, plane seats were full elsewhere as travelers diverted their holiday plans to the Indonesian island of Bali, Malaysia or to Japan and South Korea.

Charles Tee, chief operating officer of wotif.com, an online firm specializing in last-minute hotel bookings, also said business was normal.

"We had cancelations but only a small number. Some of them have rebooked and decided to go somewhere else. Others told us they are just staying home," he said.

Martin Symes, executive director for commercial affairs at the pan-Asian online travel portal Zuji, said the Lunar New Year holidays next month are providing a fresh incentive for people to travel.

He said, however, that for long-haul flights, there has been a shift away from Southeast Asia to Canada, Australia and Europe.

But for many Asian travelers, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Bali remain popular destinations.

There has also been a diversion among Taiwanese travelers to destinations in Korea and Japan and some cancelations to Southeast Asian beach destinations, even those that were not affected by the tsunamis.

In Hong Kong, many residents are delaying travel decisions because of the tsunami disaster, with those traveling choosing to go to Vancouver, Toronto and Sydney.

Ivy Tan, marketing communications manager for Chan Brothers Travel, one of Singapore's biggest travel agencies, said Singaporeans have shifted from Phuket to alternative beach resorts in Pattaya, also in Thailand, Langkawi in Malaysia, or Bali.

"There is a notable switch from beach resorts to inland destinations such as Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Hong Kong," she said.

But she agreed travel sentiment in Asia remained buoyant.

"Bookings are still pouring in steadily ... There is a rush for seats for the [Muslim holiday] Hari Raya Haji long weekend in January and Chinese New Year holidays in February," Tan said.

John Koldowski, a spokesman for the Bangkok-based Pacific Asia Travel Association, said Thailand's tourism industry is likely to rebound quickly.

"We are hopeful that once the reality on the ground is known, people will return. The message we are trying to get across is that giving cash donations is good because we need humanitarian relief.

"But in the longer term, what we are suggesting is that if you really want to make a difference, come and have your holiday in Thailand because then you keep someone employed; you give them back their self-esteem," he said.

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