A year after a devastating tsunami washed over beach resorts from Thailand to the Maldives, tourism is beginning to bounce back. But the recovery has been patchy, with upscale international hotels generally faring better than smaller, local resorts and travel-related businesses.
In Thailand, tourism accounts for about 6 percent of gross domestic product, and several thousand foreign vacationers were among the 8,327 people who were killed in the catastrophe or are still missing. Almost all of the visitors were vacationing on or around the southern island of Phuket, a region that had contributed as much as 40 percent of Thailand's annual tourism income.
With hotels and other infrastructure along the coast destroyed or badly damaged, the recovery was slow to gather momentum. From January to September, the latest period for which data are available, the Tourism Authority of Thailand said 1.63 million people visited Phuket -- less than half the 3.5 million who visited in the comparable period in 2004. Revenue from the tourist economy in the region fell 70 percent in the same period to $421.8 million.
To get tourism back on track, Thailand's tourism officials have aggressively campaigned to woo visitors, stressing that conditions are back to normal. Huge billboards at Phuket's international airport proclaim "Phuket's Back." Hotels lining the coast display signs saying "Back in Business" or "Open as Usual." With a strong commercial incentive, the government also aggressively pushed to rebuild Phuket, with the result being that little remains to remind visitors of the disaster.
The effort appears to be paying off. Although data are still sketchy, the Phuket Tourist Association said overall occupancy rates at the island's hotels have begun to climb since August, reaching about 60 percent as Phuket headed into its traditional busy winter season for European and North American tourists. But that is still well below the normal rate for this time of year, said Pattanapong Aikwanich, the tourist association's president.
John Koldowski of the Pacific Asia Travel Association, a regional travel-industry trade group, said, "Some hotels are doing very, very well, but it's not across the board."
The recovery has been strongest for Phuket's three- and four-star hotels, where 70 percent to 80 percent of the rooms are now full. Super-luxury hotels and discount lodgings have been less successful, Pattanapong said, adding that he expects business at Phuket's hotels to return to pre-tsunami levels by May.
Asian tourists have been particularly slow to return to Thailand. Japanese tourists are staying away, in part, Pattanapong suggested, because Thailand's biggest airline -- Thai Airways International -- has yet to resume direct flights to Phuket from Tokyo and Osaka that were discontinued after the tsunami. Some industry analysts say Asian visitors may be put off by the tsunami's death toll. After memorial services for victims this week, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra asked visitors from northeast Asia to come back.
"Please tell your fellow Japanese and Chinese back home to stop fearing ghosts and return to this region again," he said, according to the Associated Press.
The recovery elsewhere in tsunami-affected Asia has been mixed. The Maldives, a nation of tiny atolls in the Indian Ocean, is approaching pre-tsunami tourism levels. Deputy Tourism Minister Abdul Hameed Zakariyya said charter flights of sun-seekers from Germany have continued to prop up tourist arrivals. And swift repair means that 82 of the country's 87 resorts are now operating normally.
As a result, over the Christmas holiday, the Maldives had an average occupancy of 82 percent; Zakariyya predicted that would increase to 96 percent over New Year's week, traditionally the country's peak season. "The industry has almost recovered to where it was before the tsunami," he said.
That's good news for the Maldives, where the tourist industry accounted for 31 percent of GDP last year, provided 40 percent of the country's revenue and employed around two-thirds of the archipelago's working-age population.
But Sri Lanka, where more than 35,000 people perished in the tsunami, has fared less well. Although the number of foreign arrivals rose 3.4 percent year-on-year from January to October of this year, Koldowski noted, for example, the number of nights foreign guests spent at hotels in Sri Lanka was down 40 percent for the first nine months of 2005 compared with the same period in 2004.
The tsunami affected almost 30 percent of Sri Lanka's 14,000 hotel rooms. While many have been repaired, most of the little beach shops, cafes and restaurants favored by long-staying foreigners are still struggling to rebuild as they wait for government aid and approval for construction near the coast, which was banned after the tsunami.
The lack of the mom-and-pop shops could be one of the reasons that visitors are spending less money and less time in Sri Lanka this year, suggested S. Kalaiselvam, director general of the Sri Lanka Tourist Board in the capital, Colombo. "Tourists are spending less duration [here] and they confine themselves to the hotels," he said. "For the small and medium people it is very hard. They don't have money -- for them to recover they have to see more tourists."
Hookway reported from Phuket, Stanley from Hong Kong and Bellman from Mumbai.
The South Sea Pakarang Resort in Khao Lak, Thailand, is still wrecked one year after the tsunami. Tourists have been favoring upscale international hotels over smaller resorts and inns.