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Nature`s Fury – Thailand Before and After by Christine Pais HVS

It can go without saying that the 26th of December, 2004 will be remembered as a tragic day in the history of the world: a day on which a catastrophic event caused by a powerful tsunami changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in twelve countries. The tsunami catastrophe has been perhaps the most talked about tragedy since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Besides loss and destruction of human lives, which has been immeasurable, the Indian Ocean tsunami has also had a considerable impact on the economy of the countries that it hit; countries that rely on tourism as a large source of their income and employment.

The last two decades has seen a boom in Asian tourism showing the highest growth rates of all world regions. Together the 12 South East, South Asian and East African countries affected by the tsunami received some 31 million international tourist arrivals in the year 2003 and earned tourism receipts of approximately US$23 billion. In several of the devastated areas, tourism along with fishing and agriculture, provides the largest sources of income.

Thailand’s west coast hotels and guesthouses lie smashed along Phuket’s Patong beach. The same is true in the overdeveloped Phi Phi Island, where the Tourism Authority of Thailand claims 4000 rooms are a wreck. Worst of all is the up and coming Khao Lake beach on Phang Nga’s rugged and isolated coast, favoured by the wealthy as an escape from Phuket’s hoi polloi, with 6000-10000 rooms, some only just completed, having been completely ravaged. Thailand’s government is expected to lose out on tourism revenue of more than 150 million bahts a month and is trying to convene meetings with the World Tourism Organization and the United Nations to look for avenues to lure visitors back, but rivals such as South Africa are likely to benefit in the short term.

Luckily, the beloved tourist spots on the Gulf Coast, like Pattaya, Koh Samui and Koh Chang, were spared the effects of the tsunami, as was the inland, including the capital city of Bangkok and the tourist meccas of Chiang Mai,Mae Hong Son and Ayuttaya in the north.

In Sri Lanka, despite the destruction to the east coast, officials say 70% of their tourist areas are intact. About the same number of resorts is operating in the Maldives as well. The tourism departments of both countries are trying their best to attract tourists to the areas to maintain the lifeline that tourism provides to the economies of these two countries.

Malaysia was also hit by the tsunami. The holiday islands of Penang (Miami Beach, Batu Ferringhi and Pantai Pasir Panjang) and Langkawi (Pantai Cenang and Kuala Teriang) witnessed damage to many of their hotels. Some 700 houses in Penang and Kedah were destroyed. However, thanks to the lifeguards and the observation tower system at international beach hotels and resorts in Penang and Langkawi, there was no loss of lives in this area. Peninsular Malaysia was also spared the full impact of the tsunami as it is sheltered by the island of Sumatra and not directly exposed to the Indian Ocean.

In Langkawi, all hotels and resorts in the affected areas are now operating as usual, while tourist attractions are unaffected. Hotel beachfronts that were affected took a few days to be cleaned of debris, but are now open to the public again. The crisis management committee activated on site at Langkawi maintains close contact with hotel managers and resort operators and provides early warnings during such events.

Rebuilding the area:

Amid the death and destruction, tourism chiefs are seeing a glimmer of hope — a chance to rebuild a new environment and family-friendly mould, devoid of the grime, sleaze and excess which blight many once pristine holiday spots. A good example is the wilderness along Khao Lak in Thailand which was meant to enjoy national park protection. The coastline disappeared in a free-for-all scramble of hotel complexes, beach bars and market stalls vying for every tourist dollar, pound or baht. The Tourism Authority of Thailand is working feverishly, formulating land use plans for the now devastated coastline of Khao Lak to limit new developments that may emerge because of the rebuilding.

Thailand’s tourism department is also urging hotel management companies like Marriott, Sofitel, Hyatt and Hilton to play a greater role in persuading owners to comply with the rules and regulations laid down by the government in an effort to preserve the area. Hotel executives, however, have reservations about how successful this effort will be, given the vested interests of various parties, and believe that stringent enforcement will be required in order to curb over-development.

Whatever the outcome, the start of the rebuilding effort in the tsunami-devastated areas brings hope that was nowhere in sight, even weeks after the calamity. Tour operators have begun to lure travelers back to the areas that were least affected in a hope to retain most of the US$25 billion usually spent in South Asia each year. This effort has been helped along by the talk of setting up a tsunami warning system in the area, as well as by tourists who feel the need to play their part in the reconstruction of their much-favored holiday spots.

HVS International is a hospitality services firm providing industry skill and knowledge worldwide. The organization and its specialists possess a wide range of expertise and offer market feasibility studies, valuations, strategic analyses, development planning, and litigation support.

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TravelDailyNews Asia-Pacific editorial team has an experience of over 35 years in B2B travel journalism as well as in tourism & hospitality marketing and communications.