The World Tourism Organization, a United Nations specialized agency, along with the entire world community, has been deeply shocked and saddened by the terrible Tsunami that took place on 26 December, causing unprecedented loss of life and damage.
Reacting to this exceptional disaster, the United Nations and other international organizations are working side by side with national governments to provide emergency aid to the affected communities.
For most of the affected countries tourism is a very important source of income and employment. In the last decades, Asian tourism has been extremely successful-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 2003 and earned receipts of US$ 23 billion.
When the tragedy happened, destinations in Asia, especially those that had fully recovered from the recent tourism crises, were experiencing spectacular tourism growth. The WTO estimates that Asia experienced some 37 per cent growth of international tourist arrivals during the first eight months of 2004. The twelve countries represent four per cent of the global tourism market share. However, the tourism stock directly affected by the tsunami in the six most impacted Asian countries is estimated to represent less than one per cent of the global market share.
Immediately following the disaster, WTO Secretary-General Francesco Frangialli stated that the organization is firmly committed to join international and national efforts and to do what is in the reach of the organization to help overcome the situation. The WTO is already in active contact with the national tourism authorities involved in order to find the best ways and means to minimize the damage and to restore the industry as rapidly as possible.
Experience gained in previous emergency situations, shows that tourism is capable of recovering often more vigorously and rapidly than initially expected. “I am confident that this time it won’t be different, in spite of the severity and geographical extent of the disaster,” said the Secretary-General. “Tourism in the affected countries will overcome this disaster, just as it did during the Asian financial crisis in 1997 and 1998, as it did in the aftermath of 11 September 2001 and as it did facing the outbreak of SARS in 2003.”
While not trying to minimize the tragic loss of life and property in non-tourist areas, such as northern Sumatra, the east coasts of India and Sri Lanka, as well as archipelago of Andaman and Nicobar islands, the WTO saidÊ that accurate information about the true extent of the damage can help reduce the impact to the region’s tourism industry, saving jobs and badly-needed revenues.
“It is necessary to understand that the affected areas represent only limited parts of the coastal areas of the involved countries,” said WTO Chief of Market Intelligence and Promotion Augusto Huéscar. He stresses that the vast majority of world - famous tourist destinations in the affected countries remained totally untouched and are fully operational, such as Bangkok, Koh Samui and Chiang Mai in Thailand, Goa and most of India, and the thousands of unaffected islands of the Indonesian archipelago. For instance, the Indonesian island of Bali, which is the bread and butter of Indonesian tourism, is thousands of kilometres away from the northern provinces of the island of Sumatra.
Furthermore, one should realize that, even in directly affected areas, only part of the tourism infrastructure was damaged. For example, in Maldives 64 out of 87 resorts are reported to be fully operational.
Although the Thai beach destination of Phuket is severely hit, the impression that “Phuket is gone” is wrong. The governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), stated that the majority of hotels in Phuket are unaffected. In Malaysia, the destinations of Langkawi and Penang have returned to normal and only some beachfront hotels have been affected.
The tourism industry, working together with authorities and local communities, is making every effort to restore tourism infrastructure and return to normal activity. As tourism is a lifeline for them, they hope and expect that tourists will return as soon as possible. A first sign of confidence comes from the attitude of the actual tourists in some of the affected areas. As stated by the chairman of the Sri Lanka Tourist Board:
“One of the most heart-warming effects of this tragedy has been the reaction of the foreign visitors. A large number of tourists are refusing to leave the affected destinations, and have insisted to continue their holidays collaborating with the cleaning up, or travelling to unaffected areas of the countries, thus contributing to the early recovery of tourism.”
WTO Secretary-General Francesco Frangialli is calling upon national governments to draft travel advisories in a careful and responsible manner, taking into account that the disaster only affected pockets of a wide area and to withdraw warnings in a timely manner, once the situation is improving. “The international travel industry and individual travellers should carefully evaluate any change in their travel plans and itineraries,” Mr. Frangialli stresses. He warns that the situation, if not correctly perceived, may turn into a double disaster for the countries involved, first the natural disaster and then the added disaster of misperception causing tourists to avoid those destinations.
WTO also urges the international donors community to help reconstruct the tourism infrastructure in the affected areas. After the urgent humanitarian assistance to the local population, the international community should not forget the tourism-related infrastructure, be it with public or private funds. Reconstruction of this infrastructure offers a chance for the population of the coastal areas to recover their jobs and livelihoods and reincorporate themselves into normal life.
For the WTO it was encouraging to receive an offer of cooperation from several intergovernmental organizations, such as UNDP, as well as national organizations, all of which want to assist the tourism sector in affected areas. These organizations, donors, tour operators and other representatives of source markets and destinations will be invited to join the WTO for a special meeting, to take place at the end of January in Phuket, Thailand, to assess the needs of the tourism industry in the affected area. The detected needs will be submitted to and discussed at an extraordinary session of the WTO Executive Council the following day, which will decide on specific actions to undertake.