The tourists still come - only now they want to help as aid workers

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The Independent Online

Incredibly, just eight days after the disaster that shocked the world, tourists are coming back to the stricken areas of south Asia. But now they come on a mission. They are the new generation of travellers turned aid workers.

Incredibly, just eight days after the disaster that shocked the world, tourists are coming back to the stricken areas of south Asia. But now they come on a mission. They are the new generation of travellers turned aid workers.

Last night, Pippa Farruuggia arrived at Katanayake airport in Colombo. The 32-year-old doctor was touching down on this devastated land for the second time in eight days. The first time she found a land so shattered, she felt it was best to leave. Packing her bags, she made off to Laos, to continue her travels. But, soon after reaching her new destination, she realised she had made a mistake. It gnawed away at her. She had to go back.

It is far from a unique story. The battered coastlines of Asia are, once again, filled with the sound of European languages. And they don't just belong to professional aid workers.

Hundreds of holidaymakers have arrived since the world's most powerful earthquake in 40 years stunned the globe. But they're not planning on lazing by the pool. They are so appalled by the loss of life that they have become the new rapid reaction relief squads.

Reports of similar mini-invasions of traveller volunteers are coming in from Thailand and parts of Indonesia. But nowhere is this trend more evident than in Sri Lanka, the second worst-hit nation that has lost at least 30,000 of its people. From the hotels of Colombo a steady stream of helpers make their way to the headquarters of aid organisations and emergency relief groups.

Laura Conrad of Save the Children has been running relief convoys from the capital to the battered town of Galle in the south, where at least 2,000 locals are thought to have perished. Yesterday, as she handed out medical supplies, water and food at camps for refugees evacuated from the town, she paid tribute to the new recruits. "Save the Children was being helped by people who had been heading here on holiday and decided that they should not abandon their plans", she said. They had instead opted to alter their schedules in view of the desperate situation.

And for some that has even meant staying on longer than planned. Eric Coleman was in the resort of Unawatuna, just along the coast from Galle, when the waves slammed in.

After struggling to safety, his ordeal had only just begun. His family was down the coast in Galle Fort and he had no idea of their fate. Upon walking the three miles to the walled 17th-century, Dutch fortified section of the town, he discovered that they were alive and well.

But immediately they set about doing their best to alleviate the suffering of the injured, the bereaved and the hungry. Project Galle 2005 was born.

Originally Mr Coleman, from Sussex, and his girlfriend had planned on staying in Sri Lanka for just a month or two before returning for the new year. But now he is looking at an extended visit. And even if, as expected, he returns to England in February, he will remain involved in the operation there.

"This has had a massive impact on my life," Mr Coleman said yesterday. "On a personal level, it was a shocking, frightening experience. But it has become much more. I've never been involved in a relief operation before and that has had a big effect on me."

He explained many travellers had come into Project Galle 2005 and told him their priorities in life were changing as a result of what they had seen first-hand or even just on television before they came out.

Project Galle 2005 started out last week collecting and distributing aid donated locally. Soon it had hooked up with a Colombo-based group called Impact that has been collecting in the capital and routing vital materials to the worst-hit areas.

Impact is also seeing an "incredible" response from overseas visitors so affected by what they saw on television they felt they had to come and help.

One organiser there said: "We have people coming in daily and telling us that for 24 hours or so they thought they would forget about the holiday.

"But then they realise that far from getting in the way they can actually be vitally important players in this fight to save and rebuild shattered lives." Australians, Russians, Irish, Swedes, Americans and many other nationalities are all finding roles for themselves. Alex Marden arrived in Sri Lanka's interior for a family break this week. And, while the wave did not physically wreak havoc on the inland areas, there had been fears that a tourism downturn could shatter the vital source of income for the area.

"We wondered if we should cancel," said Miss Marden, a 24-year-old film designer who lives in Whitechapel, east London. "But my father insisted that we should still travel and he was right.

"People are so pleased to see that we have not given up on Sri Lanka. I would encourage anyone to come here now. This country needs a boost."

In certain areas, though, hotels have been slightly surprised by the determination of some to have their holiday. The award-winning Lighthouse in Galle survived the worst of the tsunami and carried on operating with the help of temporary generators. It has now become the headquarters for the international broadcast pack of journalists that descended on Sri Lanka since the disaster.

So much so that when one English couple turned up to take their room over the weekend they were told all had gone. Fortunately, when they produced their reservation certificate, the startled staff managed to accommodate them elsewhere in the hotel.

'I felt I had to go in to see what I could do'

By Terri Judd

Ramani Leathard and her husband had planned a holiday in Sri Lanka with friends to celebrate their silver wedding anniversary.

Instead the 49-year-old and her husband, the Rev Brian Leathard, vicar of St James's Church in Hampton Hill, south-west London, have spent the past week ferrying aid to survivors.

The family had been in Kosgoda, south of Colombo, but returned to the capital for Christmas. On Boxing Day, they heard the village had been wiped out. "For me it was like I was on autopilot. I felt I had to go in and see what I could do," said Mrs Leathard, who has worked for Christian Aid in London for years. "I walked into the office and said 'I am here. What can I do?'"

She added: "It really is very sad. I just can't believe it. There is also a certain amount of guilt that I didn't suffer personally.

"I have a friend who watched her whole family washed away. What do you say to a person like that?"

'Scandinavia has lost many lives'

By Stephen Khan

Norwegian friends Carl Peta Ulrichson and Snorre Erlandsen had not expected to be working for the Sri Lankan Red Cross this week. They thought their trip to the Indian Ocean would be all exotic food, poolside drinks and the occasional jaunt to an exotic site.

Yet yesterday they found themselves in Galle, dishing out supplies to grateful children. "We were almost on our way here for our friend's wedding on the 28th when we heard about the tragedy," Mr Ulrichson said. "We wondered what to do. And then we thought it best to press ahead." Mr Erlandsen said: "Neither of us has been involved in this sort of thing before, but we felt very strongly that we just needed to do something. This has been a terrible disaster for the people of Scandinavia. We have lost many lives. It is the worst time since the Second World War."

Even if the visitors who press ahead with trips to the Asian disaster zone are not directly involved in the relief effort, they feel that simply by coming they are showing solidarity with the afflicted countries. And helping to sow the seeds that will, they hope, lead to economic recovery.