Tue, Jan 09, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Is tourism damaging post-tsunami recovery?

Years after the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami, thousands of victims still live in makeshift shacks while billions of US dollars in aid remain unspent as governments prioritize tourism projects, a tourism charity says

By Gemma Bowes  /  THE OBSERVER , LONDON

Two years after the Indian Ocean tsunami which wreaked havoc on the coastlines of Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, the countries worst affected by the disaster are still a long way from recovery -- and tourism is partly to blame, a tourism charity said.

While many luxury hotels were up and running and welcoming tourists within weeks of the Dec. 26 tsunami, hundreds of thousands of homes needed by survivors have still not been rebuilt.

Thousands of people still live in makeshift shacks, only a third of those made homeless have been rehoused, and much of the aid money raised remains unused. UN agencies have yet to spend half of the ?3.7 billion (US$7.2 billion) pledged or donated by governments and other bodies.

Aside from corruption, poor management and bureaucracy marring the recovery process, tourism has also had a negative impact on the local communities that are struggling to rebuild. Tourism Concern, a charity that fights exploitation in tourism, says that government, big business and holidaymakers have been a higher priority than the well-being of local communities.

Kelly Haynes, who has coordinated research in the affected countries for the charity, says a second disaster is taking shape and that there needs to be a public outcry about the unspent billions.

"Governments have used the devastation of the tsunami as an opportunity to push through tourism strategies that drastically affect local coastal communities," she says. "Local communities now find themselves disempowered and their rights and interests marginalized."

In a report published two years after the tsunami, Tourism Concern investigates the recovery of the countries affected and describes many examples of local people being sidelined in favor of tourism projects.

In Sri Lanka, as in Thailand and India, new 'conservation buffer zones" mean that people are not allowed to rebuild their homes on the beach. Fishing communities are being moved inland largely because of tourism developments and a desire to make the beaches look tidier, Tourism Concern director Tricia Barnett says.

In Tamil Nadu, for example, 300 families have been forced to live on 2.5 hectares of land compared with the 6.5 hectares they occupied in the village of Karikkakattukup-pam, because the government has earmarked the rest of the land for tourism.

The report describes how Burmese refugees living in Khao Lak in Thailand are being exploited as underpaid construction workers for the hotel industry. In one case, 80 people were not paid for six months' labor, and others were beaten for asking for wages.

Other problems include the series of tsunami-related tourist attractions that have been planned by the Tourism Authority of Thailand, including a "tsunami trail tour" and a "tsunami memorial museum," which some local people oppose and were not consulted about, and a hotel chain that is trying to evict villagers from land it says it owns, despite the fact that a Thai NGO has established the company's deeds are false.

In the aftermath of the tsunami, the tourist boards of Sri Lanka, Thailand and the Maldives urged foreign visitors to return immediately, so their money would reach local people.

Even after two years, tourist arrivals are down 40 percent to Thailand and 46 percent to the Maldives, compared with pre-tsunami levels, and the tourism industry says boosting these figures is crucial to recovery.

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