Asia quake disaster fails to deter tourists

A sunbather looks on as the clean-up operation continues on a Phuket beach after the tsunami Keystone Archive

Sun-seeking Swiss tourists are booking holidays in the Indian Ocean just days after tidal waves caused massive devastation in the area.

This content was published on January 5, 2005 - 09:32

Travel agents say Thailand and Sri Lanka are attracting more bookings, even as the search for the bodies of victims continues.

But a non-governmental organisation, the Swiss Working Group on Tourism and Development, says tourists should think twice before returning to the area.

The disaster has so far claimed the lives of around 150,000 people, and on Tuesday, the president, Samuel Schmid, said several hundred Swiss had almost certainly died.

Operators specialising in Asian holidays are reporting renewed interest in Indian Ocean destinations since the start of the week. Two specialist firms – Tourasia and Wettstein – have resumed package trips to the Thai resort of Phuket, which was badly hit by the tsunami.

Economic blow

Wettstein manager Ruth Landolt says the tourist-dependent economies will only suffer more if foreign visitors stay away.

“Our appeal to the public at the moment is ‘please do not cancel’ - this is actually the most direct help people can give,” Landolt told swissinfo.

“In Sri Lanka the clean-up operation is still very much ongoing, whereas in Thailand most of the beach resorts have already been cleaned up and most of the hotels can offer beach holidays [again].”

All travel agents have been faced with large numbers of cancellations since the disaster struck, and an associated loss in income. Switzerland’s leading tour operator, Kuoni, says it is reckoning on costs of SFr2-3 million ($1.7-2.6 million) resulting from cancellations and the repatriation of stranded holidaymakers.

But while larger agencies have been able to offer alternative destinations to those booked to travel to southern Thailand and Sri Lanka, the specialist agencies have fewer alternatives to fall back on.

“The cancellations are our biggest headache,” conceded Landolt. “The repatriation of customers was insured, but what is not insured against is people cancelling their holidays.”

Ethical question

But even when alternative destinations are on offer, some Swiss are still opting to spend their holidays at beach resorts in Thailand and the Maldives. A few dozen tourists are currently holidaying in Phuket, where the search for the missing continues.

“I personally could not spend a holiday in the affected regions,” admitted Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey, during a visit to Thailand and Sri Lanka to witness the extent of the devastation.

“But everyone must decide for himself what is right. And visiting the affected area could be seen as a form of support.”

Christine Plüss, who heads the non-governmental Working Group on Tourism and Development, told swissinfo that if tourism to the region were to cease the countries most dependent on it would suffer greatly.

But she urges would-be visitors to find out the facts before embarking on a trip to one of the tsunami-hit countries.

“There is a great risk that people going there on holiday might absorb the scarce resources like drinking water… which are needed now for the inhabitants,” Plüss cautioned. “This could lead to new stress situations, which should be avoided at all costs.”

Solidarity

For Plüss, the most important thing people can do now is to show solidarity with the victims of the tsunami.

She says this could mean waiting for a period of time before visiting one of the affected beach resorts. Or visiting a different part of the same country.

“[Sun-seekers] could go to the Canary Islands instead – which are cheaper – and donate the amount that they save [to help survivors],” Plüss suggested.

But the signs are the Indian Ocean resorts with their white sandy beaches will continue to attract those who have become regular visitors, says Ruth Landolt of Asian specialist operator Wettstein.

“New disasters will happen, and people will forget.”

swissinfo, Morven McLean

Key facts

Switzerland’s biggest tour operator, Kuoni, expects to lose SFr2-3 million ($1.7-2.6 million) as a result of cancellations and the repatriation of stranded holidaymakers from Asia.
Kuoni says around 400 of its customers have cancelled trips to the affected region. Rival Hotelplan has reported close to 2,000 cancellations.

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