Today's one-year anniversary of the tsunamis that devastated large swaths of coastal South Asia will be marked by tears, prayers, commemorations — and cautious optimism that foreign tourism to the troubled region is finally on the mend
According to a new report by the United Nations' World Tourism Organization, beach resorts in the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Thailand are nearly full this month and next; occupancy rates are near 90%.
In Thailand's Phuket and Phang Nga provinces, where nearly 5,400 people died and nearly 3,000 are missing, about 1,200 survivors and foreign relatives of tsunami victims accepted the government's offer of free transportation and lodging to attend a ceremony marking the Dec. 26 disaster.
But most other winter visitors will be paying regular rates; discounts are few and far between, says Peggy Peterka of the Tourism Authority of Thailand. She adds that most American vacationers bypass the country's beach resorts in favor of cultural attractions in Bangkok and the northern region of Chang Mai.
A recent survey of 2,500 travelers by the website TripAdvisor.com, meanwhile, found that 75% said their feelings about traveling to Southeast Asia hadn't changed since the tsunamis, and 17% planned to visit in 2006. An additional 6% said they were more likely than they were a year ago to travel to the region within the next year.
Among the destinations that may have benefited from their tsunami-induced notoriety: The Maldives, an Indian Ocean island chain famous among Europeans for its high-end resorts, is "suddenly on the map for Americans" and is more accessible because of easier air connections through Dubai, says Ken Fish, president of New York-based Absolute Asia.
Healthy high-season bookings notwithstanding, hotel room and airline seat capacity to Thailand's Andaman coast, Sri Lanka and the Maldives is still substantially lower than before the tsunami, the World Tourism Organization report adds. Full recovery likely will take months.
Thailand's Phi Phi island, made famous in Leonardo DiCaprio's film The Beach
, has only 400 rooms available, compared with 2,000 before the tsunami, the U.N. tourism report notes. In the worst-hit area of Khao Lak, an upscale resort area north of Phuket, fewer than 500 of the 6,000 rooms have reopened.
"In November, I was forecasting 18% occupancy, and at the end of the month, we were looking at 30%," says Achim Brueckner, general manager of the five-star, 243-room Meridien Hotel on Khao Lak. The Meridien opened in mid-October.
"The impression is that most of Khao Lak is still devastated," he told Reuters. "I was having problems getting agents to put us in brochures. But it really doesn't look like a disaster area anymore."
Persuading would-be visitors to alter their post-tsunami perceptions isn't the only problem facing the region's tourism officials.
Security in Thailand's Andaman coast resorts has been stepped up after an Australian warning that terrorists are planning anniversary attacks against a range of targets, including places that attract foreigners. Another unknown: whether concerns about bird flu, which has caused several deaths in Thailand, will prompt vacationers to stay away.
"Last year, we were looking at the fear that SARS would return," says Fish of Absolute Asia. "Then, come September, the bird flu news started to come out." The company hasn't had cancellations, he says, but adds that "it's hard to measure those who haven't booked."