14 November 2005

Tourism and diving in Thailand on the road to recovery

Ten months after the tsunami sent holidaymakers fleeing, Thailand is gearing up for its peak tourist season which promises to restore the industry's fortunes, even in the shadow of bird flu.

"I'm glad to say — surprise, surprise — starting this month, things are looking quite good," said Luzi Matzig, group managing director of Asian Trails travel agency in Bangkok.

The occupancy rate for hotels along the Andaman coast, where nearly 5400 people were killed in the tsunami, is set to rise to 80 percent by December, as millions of holidaymakers from northern countries pour back into Thailand.

The hotels, which had languished with only 20-30 percent occupancy for the first 10 months after the December 26 disaster, are booked to near capacity for the rest of the high season, which ends in March 2006, Matzig said.

Robert Kratz (38), a scuba diving instructor from Los Angeles, said he returned to Phuket on holiday for the first time in three years, and that it was hard to find evidence of the previous devastation.

"You can hardly tell, unless you walk far down the beach where it's still getting grated. And there's a lot of beachfront construction," he said.

But in the hardest-hit areas, like farther north in Khao Lak or on the idyllic island of Phi Phi, only about half of the damaged hotels and other tourist facilities have been repaired, Asian Trails' Matzig said.

While several major hotels reopened in Khao Lak last month — including Le Meridien, the Sarojin, and La Flora — some have simply given up on rebuilding, he said.

Others are afraid that tourists won't want to drive past the worst of the destruction, where trees and buildings were swept clear and the land remains empty.

Tourists returning for anniversary
But that hasn't slowed the bookings in the region for the coming months, and many foreigners are returning in time to mark the first anniversary of the catastophe, Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) spokesperson Tanes Petsuwan said.

"The booking during the coming high season is running around 80-90 percent and will be fully booked in the New Year time. Most visitors come from Europe, especially from Scandinavia," Tanes said.

Scandinavians and tourists from other northern European countries like Germany are returning in strong numbers, even though they suffered the heaviest losses outside of Asia in the tsunami, he said.

Sweden suffered the most, with 543 dead in Thailand, followed by Germany with 518 dead.

Although tourists from other Asian countries suffered relatively few casualties, they were the slowest to return to the tsunami-hit areas, but even that trend is reversing.

"Earlier this year, yes, Asians seemed more reluctant to return to places like Phuket," said Peter Semone, vice president of the Pacific Asia Travel Association. "They tend to have a greater sense of superstition and were quite spooked by the idea of enjoying themselves in a place that had been central to such a huge loss of life. It seems, however, that for the Christmas season, things are turning around for this market also."

Tourism vital for Thailand
Tourism is a key money spinner for Thailand, generating six percent of gross domestic product.

Last year, Thailand attracted 11.6-million foreign tourists, with Phuket alone drawing 2.75 million foreign tourists and $2-billion.

While Phuket and other provinces are only beginning to recover from the tsunami this month, nationally the tourist industry has fared reasonably well.

Some 10 million tourists came to Thailand in the first nine months of the year, according to the Bank of Thailand, with a small increase in arrivals in September over the year before.

Arrivals dropped by 10 percent in the first three months after the tsunami, but rather than cancel their holidays, many foreign visitors simply rearranged them to visit other parts of Thailand.

Terrorism, bird flu could spoil the party
"Definitely, Samui and other Thai destinations have experienced a windfall in the past few months as a result of the decreased demand for Phuket. This is, however, tending to now level off," Semone said.

But some clouds remain on the horizon, especially amid global fears over bird flu.

So far, tourists have yet to be rattled by concerns about the disease which infected three people, killing one, in Thailand in the last three weeks, the country's tourism authority said.

"This round of the outbreak seems to be acknowledged by all over the world, not only in Asia," Tanes said.

The 22 months of unrest in Thailand's southernmost provinces have also caused localised damage to tourism, frightening off the mainly Malaysian and Singaporean tourists who used to visit the area, according to the Bank of Thailand.

Source: www.asiadivesite.com


Post a Comment

<< Home