South Asia One Year On

Just 12 months after the tsunami, tour operators and the region's holiday destinations are claiming that bookings are healthy. Ian Taylor reports
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The Independent Travel

It seems almost unimaginable that tourism to the countries hit by the tsunami last Boxing Day could have recovered within a year. But recover it has. Tour operators and tourism offices say every Indian Ocean destination is open for business and looking forward to a busy January.

Most of the disaster's more than 200,000 fatalities were in Aceh, in Indonesia, which was not on the tourist trail. Holiday resorts in the Maldives, Thailand and Sri Lanka saw varying degrees of destruction, but it was generally localised and confined to the coastline.

The Maldives has been up and running since February. The geography of the low-lying islands and their surrounding coral saved them from widespread damage. Most of Thailand was unaffected, and the areas which were - parts of Phuket and the island of Phi Phi - are not just re-opened but back in tour operators' brochures. Khao Lak, which suffered most, may not be fully restored, but the resort's five-star Sarojin Hotel will be full over the Christmas period. "Phuket, Phi Phi and Krabi are looking better than ever. You really wouldn't know anything had happened," said a spokeswoman for the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

Sri Lanka suffered 30,000 deaths, yet the disaster, which struck the east coast and swept around the south and south-west of the island, avoided most of the tourist resorts. Jean-Marc Flambert, UK director of the Sri Lanka Tourist Board, said, "Ninety per cent of the beach hotels are on the west coast, between Negombo and Bentota, and were hardly hit. They were running the next day."

It was south of here, at Galle, that footage of the tsunami sweeping in was captured on video. Further along the coast, a train was swept from the track resulting in heavy loss of life. Yet, according to Flambert, the beaches, hotels and transport are now restored.

Tour operators are equally upbeat. Kuoni anticipates sales to the affected areas should be back to pre-tsunami levels by January, and Thomas Cook reports bookings to Thailand on a par with a year ago. "It's taken a while for people to feel comfortable about going back to Phuket. But our portfolio is unchanged and Christmas has sold as well as usual," said a Thomas Cook spokeswoman.

Upmarket operator ITC Classics has seen strong demand for the Maldives and insists that, despite the expectation of bargains in Thailand, there has been no great drop in prices. All operators believe holidaymakers are ready to return, despite the anniversary.

Conditions for many locals, however, will not measure up to those for visitors. Oxfam has reported on the tendency for aid to go to businesses and landowners rather than those in most need. But changing that situation would require a switch in priorities not just in the Indian Ocean.

The desire to help remains strong, with gap-year specialists reporting a boom in volunteers to join restoration work. Holidaymakers who wish to do the same could contact the relevant national tourism office for details of organisations such as the Tsunami Volunteer Center in Thailand.

A spokeswoman for Kuoni said: "We could offer advice to someone who wanted to help, put them in contact with local contractors and help along the way." But she insisted visitors should not feel guilty about having a good time. "It's about jobs and livelihoods now," she said.

"You help Sri Lanka by visiting," says Flambert. "Many hotel staff are from affected areas and the 10 per cent service charge on bills makes up two-thirds of people's salaries." ITC Classics marketing director Emma Mansfield added, "Nothing can take away the tragedy, but people have children to feed. They want you to feel welcome. They need tourism."