- The Washington Times - Monday, February 20, 2006

Tourism in Southeast Asia has not fully recovered from the December 2004 tsunami, according to tourism figures.

Slightly more than a year after the tsunami, Thailand, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Indonesia are just beginning to see international tourists return with the same strength as before the deadly natural disaster.

“Although the situation has improved month by month, tourism has not yet fully recovered to pre-tsunami levels,” according to a recent U.N. World Tourism Organization report.

International tourism last year in the Maldives, a chain of islands southwest of India, fell 39 percent, the sharpest decline among the countries hit by the tsunami.

Last month, 58,332 international tourists visited the Maldives; a year ago, that figure was 61,861. It was the first month in which tourism numbers came close to matching those of pre-tsunami levels.

The Southeast Asian countries have faced a number of obstacles in luring international tourists back in pre-tsunami numbers: shuttered hotels, canceled airline flights and fear of another deadly underwater quake.

In Sri Lanka, the number of operable hotel rooms fell from 13,820 in November 2004 to 11,970 a year later. Hotel occupancy dropped from 64.3 percent in December 2004 to 51.1 percent a year later.

The country southeast of India had 51,000 tourists in December 2005, down 30 percent from a year earlier. Tourism for the year was down 3 percent, with the largest dips — up to 25 percent — in the winter. During the summer, tourism rose up to 42 percent compared with the previous year.

Six of the Maldives’ 87 hotels still are closed because of tsunami damage. It’s an improvement from early last year, when 21 hotels were closed.

“The hotels and infrastructure is now up to the level [it was] before the tsunami to handle all the tourists,” said Aminath Huda, a spokeswoman for the Maldives Tourism Promotion Board.

In Thailand, Accor Asia Pacific, which owns two hotels in Phuket, says its hotels are performing above the company’s projections.

Accor’s 23 Thailand hotels have an 86 percent occupancy rate this month. A year ago, it was 74 percent.

“There is strong support from the Europe, Asian and Australian markets and reflects the fact that most travelers realize that the tsunami was a one-[time] event and, in fact, want to contribute to the region’s recovery by supporting tourism,” Peter Hook, an Accor Asia Pacific spokesman in Sydney, Australia, said in e-mail.

“It is currently the high season so we are still cautious in our predictions for Phuket, and we will get a better idea of the extent to which the destination has recovered during the traditional low season from May to October,” he said.

At Gate 1 Travel, a Glenside, Pa., agency, travel to Thailand has climbed 25 percent compared with 2004, said Ilene Braun, vice president of sales and marketing.

“Business to Thailand is so strong,” she said, adding that the impact in Phuket was minimal. “[Phuket] came back quickly. They were able to rebuild the areas affected.”

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