Tourism in ASEAN loses billions due to tsunami

Agence France Presse

Langkawi, Malaysia, January 24:

Southeast Asia’s tourism industry has lost billions of dollars since killer tsunamis struck last month but is expected to bounce back quickly, ministers said on Monday.

Tourism ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) agreed at a meeting here to intensify marketing cooperation to woo tourists and assure them the December 26 calamity was an isolated event. The group is also turning inwards, with plans to ease visa restrictions to boost intra-ASEAN travel and offset losses due to cancellations by long-haul travellers, officials said.

“In terms of money, it’s about a few billions dollars,” Malaysian tourism minister Leo Michael Toyad said when asked about the impact of the tsunamis on regional economies.

The region has appealed to Western countries to withdraw travel advisories warning their citizens against holidaying in ASEAN countries, he said.

“Lately, we saw a rebound in tourist arrivals. It’s a matter of time. Once we give people a correct perception and educate them about the place, they will come back for their holidays.” Thailand tourism vice-minister Krirk-krai Jirapaet said the disaster had dealt a ‘very heavy blow’ to the economy and was expected to shave 0.53 percent off the country’s projected growth of six percent this year. But he predicted the industry would be back on its feet for the next peak season in November.

“Within the next few weeks, we should see tourists coming in. By the end of this year, we should see marked improvement by the end of 2006, things should come back to normal,” he said. “Most people understand that it’s not man-made but it takes time. We have to let the psychological trauma subside a litle bit before we can do anything.” After a series of blows including international terrorism and disease outbreaks, he urged the group to produce a manual on crisis management to better prepare the region for future crises.

Indonesian tourism minister Jero Wacik said arrivals dipped initially but the government was confident of achieving its target of six million tourists this year, up from 5.3 million in 2004. The devastation in Aceh province, where more than 170,000 people died, was immense but popular tourist destinations such as Bali, Surabaya and Jakarta were untouched, he said.

“Indonesia is very big and the tsunami affects only a very small part of our country. That’s why we are optimistic of reaching our projection of six million this year,” he said.

ASEAN members have begun to issue information brochures and video clips of destinations spared from the calamity, and have taken travel writers from Europe and other continents for a tour of the region. Officials said plans for an early warning system in the Indian Ocean would help rebuild confidence. Tourism is a major revenue-earner for ASEAN members, generating $27.7 billion in 2002 — excluding Brunei — or 4.8 per cent of ASEAN’s gross domestic product. The ASEAN Tourism Association (ASEANTA) has projected tourist arrivals to surge to 56 million in 2006, up from nearly 50 million expected this year.

ASEANTA deputy president Elly Hutabarat urged the group to launch a mass public relations exercise to mitigate the impact of one of Asia’s worst natural disasters. “It’s very important to let people know what is the nature of the tsunami, how it happened. We need a consolidated PR exercise by ASEAN countries,” she told AFP on the sidelines of the meeting. “Tourists must be assured that if it happens again, they will be warned.”