Tue, Feb 01, 2005 - Page 5 News List

After tsunami, return to normalcy sought

RECOVERY The World Tourism Organization says that the best thing to do to spur the Asian tourism economy is for tourists to go back to holiday-making

AFP , Phuket, Thailand

Renate Reinstaller, a tourist from Meran, Italy, walks a beach at the Baros Resort Island in the Maldives last week. With French charter flights likely to resume soon and Italy lifting a warning against travel to the Indian Ocean archipelago, authorities are hoping that the balm of tourism would ease the impact of the Dec. 26 tsunami on Maldives.

PHOTO: AP

Tourism ministers, officials and experts gathered yesterday on the tsunami-hit Thai island of Phuket to hash out a response to the worst natural disaster to hit the global tourism industry.

The secretary general of the World Tourism Organization, which held the event attended by 30 countries and a slew of international agencies, called for rapid assistance to tsunami-affected countries.

Francesco Frangialli said that while the industry had responded to repeated blows since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the US, last month's tsunamis which left more than 283,000 dead, were in another league.

"It's an event of exceptional magnitude. In fact in the history of world tourism, it's the most important disaster that we've ever had, if we take into consideration the number of victims among tourists and people working in the industry," Frangialli said.

"But on the other hand, this takes place in the context of rapid growth in the sector," he said, reflecting a widely held view that tourism would be resilient and quickly bounce back despite the tragedy.

As a region, Southeast Asian nations generated US$27.7 billion dollars in 2002 from tourism, with the ASEAN Tourism Association projecting arrivals to reach 50 million this year and surge to 56 million in 2006.

Harsh Varma, the World Tourism Organization's chief of technical cooperation, said the meeting needed to draft "practical, efficient and time-bound specific actions and outputs for affected destinations".

"This is not an ordinary crisis and this is not an ordinary meeting. The livelihoods of thousands of people depends on this industry. In fact, it is their future that is at stake here," he said.

"Therefore our action plan must not be limited to short-term activity... It must be sharp, focused and cover a range of strategies."

Ministers from tsunami-hit countries urged tourists to return amid complaints that holidaymakers had strong misperceptions about the damage, in part due to government travel advisories warning against travel to affected areas.

"The Maldives is still the paradise of the Indian Ocean. Please visit us -- that is the best way to contribute to the revival of our economy and our efforts at reconstruction," Maldives tourism minister Mustafa Lutfi said.

Thamrin Bachri, Indonesia's deputy minister for capacity building and international relations, said it was business as usual in Indonesia.

"If we are talking about the impact of the tsunami, Indonesia has suffered a very big impact, but in terms of tourism, Aceh only receives 0.05 percent from national arrivals," he said.

"That's why what we would like to say to tourists is: welcome to Indonesia, because travel to Indonesia is safe."

He said that government travel advisories had skewed perceptions of the damage, urging that they be kept "proportional."

Peter de Jong, president of the Pacific Asia Travel Association, Asia's top travel trade association, told delegates that small tourism operators were among the hardest hit in the industry.

"We want to plead their case and ensure that the government agencies assembled here make extraordinary efforts, simply because 90 percent of our industry is composed of small and medium-size enterprises," he said.

Tourism is a vital industry in most of the countries hardest-hit by the disaster, but particularly in Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives.

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