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Wed, Dec 29, 2004 - Page 12 News List

Killer waves hit tourism sector

TSUNAMI FALLOUT The psychological impact will be hard to measure, but many analysts think Asian tourists will return to the region's beach resorts in a few months

AFP , TOKYO

The deadly waves that swamped Asia's top beach resorts will deliver a psychological blow to the region's tourism industry which was just recovering from the SARS and bird flu epidemics, trade officials say.

But the impact is seen as shorter term than earlier threats, such as the fear of Islamic terrorism, and even though thousands have died many tourists are likely to brush off the tsunamis as a one-time tragedy.

In Japan, Asia's largest source of tourists, the tourist trade feared that travellers would now associate Indian Ocean destinations not with sunny holidays but mass death.

"The short-term impact of the earthquake is actual damage to accommodation," said Tsuneo Nishiyama, a spokesman for Japan Travel Bureau, the nation's largest travel agency.

"We are also afraid that a psychological impact on Japanese tourists to the region may last longer than expected," he said.

A particular focus of concern is the Thai beach resorts Phuket, one of the most popular stops for Asian tourists, where 123 people were killed when the giant waves struck on Sunday.

"No one can predict when and where an earthquake occurs, but once it happens, such places are labelled a disaster area, which is not good for tourism," said Eiko Sato, a spokeswoman at Kinki Nippon Tourist Co Ltd, Japan's second largest travel agency.

But on the Malaysian resort island of Penang, tourists were still seen basking in the sun sipping cocktails even continued rescue missions brought ashore the bodies of a 70-year-old Westerner and an eight-year-old boy.

"Foreign tourists who are already here may not rush to go back but the incident could deter others from coming in for a while, at the most for the next one or two months, after which things should go back to normal," said Azrul Azwar, senior economist with Malaysian financial group MIDF Bhd.

Don Birch, chief executive of regional ticketing service provider Abacus in Singapore, said travellers in Asia typically do not let disasters stop them from visiting their favorite destinations.

"The reality is that people adjust quickly and come back. The last time a tsunami like this occurred was about a hundred years ago," he said.

"So it's a very rare event, and I think, as sad as it is, people very quickly discount that and move on."

Robert Khoo, chief executive of the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore, said the impact would hinge on what news comes from experts on whether a new quake is likely to occur.

"Since it was caused by an underground volcanic eruption, and the situation has already come down, it should be a short-term issue," Khoo said.

Tourism had just begun to recover in Asia after the outbreak of SARS last year, which killed almost 800 people, mostly in Hong Kong and China.

The flow of travel was never allowed to resume to full capacity due to an outbreak this year of bird flu, which has killed at least 32 people, and lingering fears of attacks after the 2002 bombings of nightclubs in Bali.

Until the tsunami disaster struck, the number of Japanese holiday travellers to Thailand for the winter holidays was expected to jump 14.7 percent from a year earlier to 39,000, according to the Japan Travel Bureau.

South Korea's two commercial airlines, Korean Air and Asiana Airlines, reported massive cancellations for flights to Phuket. Korean Air officials said the carrier was considering suspending regular flights to Phuket.

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