Go There. They Need You

The human misery caused by last week's tsunami is likely to be compounded by the devastation to the tourist industry in South-east Asia. That is why we must visit as soon as possible, says Tony Wheeler, co-founder of Lonely Planet

Unlike the wall of water itself, the enormity of which was clear from the outset, the flow of information from the tsunami-devastated Indian Ocean coastline fluctuated between a delugeand a trickle. Only three days after the waves struck did photos start to appear from Indonesia's northern Aceh province, probably the most seriously devastated region of them all. In some cases the focus has been strictly tourist-related - a lot of attention has been focused on the beaches of Thailand and Sri Lanka because so many European tourists were there. It was here that information channels were operating best. As Aceh has been cut off even from the rest of Indonesia by years of civil strife, the dribble of news out of the region might as well have been carried by pigeon post.

Unlike the wall of water itself, the enormity of which was clear from the outset, the flow of information from the tsunami-devastated Indian Ocean coastline fluctuated between a delugeand a trickle. Only three days after the waves struck did photos start to appear from Indonesia's northern Aceh province, probably the most seriously devastated region of them all. In some cases the focus has been strictly tourist-related - a lot of attention has been focused on the beaches of Thailand and Sri Lanka because so many European tourists were there. It was here that information channels were operating best. As Aceh has been cut off even from the rest of Indonesia by years of civil strife, the dribble of news out of the region might as well have been carried by pigeon post.

Some of the most amazing tsunami stories emerged from north Sumatra. While the coastal town of Meulaboh, only 40 miles from the earthquake epicentre, looked as if it had been hit by a nuclear bomb, the offshore island of Simeulue escaped with only a handful of deaths. Although as close to the quake, and even though the tsunami wave destroyed 90 per cent of the buildings along the coast, the 70,000 islanders had followed their ancestors' advice in the event of an earthquake: "Run for your life." (They had been equally cautious two years ago after an earthquake in November 2002. On that occasion Radio Australia reported that "thousands of people have spent the night in the hills" because, even though "experts say the possibility of a tsunami is small" the islanders were "unconvinced".)

A little to the south of Simeulue, the island of Nias has long attracted surfers, although there were very few of them there when the waves hit on the morning of 26 December. One of them posted a lengthy account on the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree message board. More than 80 died in Nias, but for this visitor the whole thing seemed remarkably benign, water flooding in until the ground floor of his hotel was three feet under water, flooding out again, and returning just as gently at intervals all afternoon.

Stories have been equally variable from other parts of the region. The Thai resort of Khao Lak, where a large proportion of the visitors were Scandinavians, was virtually wiped out. Meanwhile, Railay, a popular resort for scuba divers and rock climbers, was announcing on its website only a day after the tsunami that it was business as usual, although some of the beachfront restaurants were a bit short of chairs.

That heartfelt plea from the Railay tourist operators - "don't go away, we're open for business" - is definitely an indication of a nagging fear. Nobody is making light of the huge human cost of the disaster, but for many people in the developing world no tourists this morning can mean no food on the table tonight.

That certainly has been brought home to me on visits to Bali since the October 2002 terrorist bomb at Kuta Beach comprehensively scared tourists away. The following year it was patently clear how bad business was: hotels were empty; restaurant tables deserted; rental outlets had rows of bicycles waiting for non-existent cyclists. Taxi drivers at the airport, disconsolately waiting for another half-empty flight, told the same story.

A couple of months ago it was a different tale. Visitors were coming back and the Balinese were clearly very happy to see them. We can all dig into our pockets to contribute money to relief efforts in the tsunami-wrecked regions, but in the longer term the best thing we can do is, simply, go there. Nobody is suggesting we should go there and get in the way of the clear up, but the situation will improve and a visit sooner is definitely better than later. The Thais, with the biggest and most sophisticated tourist business in the region, are clearly aware of that. Already, the Thai tourist department has announced a European roadshow to convince potential visitors that the situation is under control. Throughout the region every hotel worth its website is busy detailing exactly how much damage it has suffered and how long it will take before it is back in full operation again.

In some places damage is localised. Even in Phuket some beaches and resorts have escaped unscathed, and the country's east coast is completely untouched. Thailand also has a great deal of tourism totally unrelated to beach activities, ranging from the after-dark side of the capital, Bangkok, to the ancient cities in the Thai heartland and the hill-tribe treks of the north.

The damage in Sri Lanka was much more extensive, stretching in a great arc from the beach resorts on the east coast right around the south of the country and up the west coast to the capital, Colombo. Again, however, there are inland attractions such as the hill-country town of Kandy, the tea plantation highlands and the ancient cities that vividly recall Sri Lanka's glorious past. Tourist businesses in these centres will be hoping that tourists leaving the beaches won't leave them high and dry as well.

I've had my own experience of a post-disaster return to Sri Lanka. In late 1978 a cyclone ripped through the east coast resorts of Passekudah and Kalkudah. When I turned up in early 1979 the palm trees still looked very bare, but the hotels were certainly back in business - except that no tourists had yet returned. One afternoon my wife and I had the entire Passekudah Bay to ourselves. Unhappily for the local people, if tourists did come back it was only for a brief visit, soon after the region became a no man's land during the long Tamil rebellion. If the tsunami did minimal damage to the tourist infrastructure here, it was only because there was so little to be damaged.

Finally, it's worth remembering that tourists bring more than just their open wallets. Two years after a local layabout deliberately set fire to a backpacker hostel in the small Australian town of Childers, killing 15 young backpackers, local residents recalled how the loss had hit them. The young visitors had brought an international flavour to the tiny town, a taste of the outside world. Of course, their hosts were deeply sorry for the lives thoughtlessly lost, and certainly some local businesses had been affected, but it was the broken contact with a wider world that was felt every day.

Travel and tourism will always represent more than mere business. There will be many people around the Indian Ocean fringes hoping that their visitors will soon be back.

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