- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Travel agents and industry officials said it was too soon to estimate the long-term damage that Sunday’s earthquake and tsunami would have on the Asia-Pacific tourism industry.

The economies of most of the affected coastal areas, including the Maldives and Phuket, Thailand, depend heavily on foreign tourism.

Several U.S. tour operators have reported a jump in cancellations to countries that were slammed by the tidal waves.

But industry analysts said any long-term impact will depend on how quickly the countries rebuild from the destruction that has claimed at least 77,000 lives and left millions of people homeless.

A drop in tourists from European countries and Australia will hurt the region more than a drop from American tourists, who are less likely to fly 20 to 24 hours to the area, said Justin McNaull, AAA spokesman.

About 10,000 tourists from the United Kingdom were reported to be visiting the region when the waves struck.

Countries such as Thailand and India will need multifaceted marketing campaigns to promote unaffected areas in order to sustain tourism, said Cathy Keefe, spokeswoman for the Travel Industry Association of America, a Washington trade group.

India welcomed 2.3 million foreign tourists in 2003 and was looking to end 2004 on an upswing — with 3 million visitors before the earthquake hit.

Thailand, the most popular American destination of the 12 countries hit by the tsunami, expects damages to cost $510 million, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said earlier this week.

The Tourism Authority of Thailand is expected to lower its tourism estimates for 2005, originally forecast at 13.5 million foreign visitors.

American tourists accounted for fewer than 5 percent of Thailand’s 12 million visitors in 2004.

They also made up about 5 percent of the 500,000 foreign tourists in Sri Lanka in 2003.

Ashish Sanghrajka, vice president of Big Five Tours & Expeditions, in Stuart, Fla., said he was confident that tourism in countries such as Thailand and Sri Lanka would rebound quickly.

Some of his customers cut short their Asian tours, which make up 25 percent to 35 percent of total revenue. So far, he has seen no major cancellations.

Most customers heading to Thailand or India are changing their itineraries to avoid the battered areas, he said.

Major cruise lines will experience little fallout from the earthquake, said Brian Major, spokesman for the Cruise Line International Association, a New York trade group.

Only three cruise lines are planning trips in the next few months to spots like Phuket, which was an emerging destination, Mr. Major said.

One of them, Los Angeles-based Crystal Cruises Inc., still plans for its ship, Crystal Serenity, to make stops at Phuket, Bangkok and Singapore during its world tour in March, said spokesman Sean Magnuson.

“We’re closely monitoring the situation,” Mr. Magnuson said, adding the trip has not received any cancellations so far.

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