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Friday, January 14, 2005

Panellists confident Andaman coast will recover but not without challenges

Andaman Sea coastal areas that relied heavily on tourism are set to make a “reasonably quick” recovery due to aggressive international marketing campaigns and the fact that damage wrought by the tsunami both to the environment and to the tourism infrastructure were less severe than had previously been speculated.

This assessment was made by a panel of officials and private-sector members who have been working tirelessly in affected areas. They all agreed that almost three weeks after the disaster struck, conditions in the tsunami-hit region could now be more accurately assessed.

The roundtable, held yesterday at the Metropole Hotel, organised by The Nation and The Phuket Gazette, reviewed the situation in Phuket, Phang Nga and Krabi.

The outlook for the region – a top international tourist destination before December 26 – was not without “challenges” and “causes for concern”, panellists agreed. International tourists are expected to stay away from the region in the immediate future and accordingly the panellists called on the Thai government to help promote southern coastal resorts to Thai citizens over the next few months.

Panellists said that in the wake of the disaster, many people

panicked and over-estimated the impact of the disaster. Authorities conducting assessments now have determined that the situation is not so dire.

The ecosystem had been damaged less than was earlier expected, panellists heard, with the coral-reef system having largely escaped the tsunami’s onslaught. Moreover, only about 20 per cent of the 30,000 hotel rooms in the region were affected.

These assessments have caused the Tourism Authority of Thailand to begin offering promotions to international and local tourists in an effort to reclaim the area’s former status among Asia’s beach destinations.

TAT regional director Sethapon Chindanon said the agency had come up with short-term, mid-term and long-term action plans to win back the confidence of international and regional tourists.

Short-term measures include organising visits by the international media and tourist agents to the affected areas over the next couple of weeks, as well as the issuing of an official assurance that the areas are safe to visit from the Ministry of Public Health.

A “hard-sell” period will follow in which TAT representatives will attend international trade shows to attract tourists, mainly in Europe.

Sethapon said that the agency was aware that people from different countries would visit Phuket after the tsunami for different reasons.

For example, he expects many Chinese to celebrate Chinese New Year in Phuket, but expects fewer Scandinavian tourists because of the heavy loss of lives those nations incurred.

“We have to differentiate the markets,” he said.

TAT plans to offer customised travel plans, including a “tsunami-trail” tour covering areas hit by the tidal waves, and packages for international aid volunteers.

The campaigns, featuring slogans like “Andaman Sunshine”, will focus on the hospitality of the Thai people made so well-known through the world press in the tsunami’s aftermath.

Sethapon said that from February to March the TAT would promote Andaman coastal areas in international travel and tourism conferences as well as in a travel event to be held at the Queen Sirikit National Convention Centre in which discount travel packages would be on offer.

Over the long-term, he said, tsunami-hit beaches would be redeveloped, with special attention paid to preserving the natural beauty of the area.

Niphon Phongsuwan, a coral-reef biologist at the Phuket Marine Biological Centre (PMBC), said that, contrary to an initial estimate, only 5 per cent of the overall coral reef in Phuket was destroyed by the tsunami.

“We’ve found very minor destruction in the coral reefs ,” he said.

Most of the coral reef around Patong beach remained intact and less than 20 per cent of the reef around Phi Phi island was destroyed, he said. About 5 per cent of the coral reef around Maya beach was also affected. The centre has said that diving sites in Phuket do not need to be closed but sites off Koh Phai near Phi Phi island should be shut down.

Niphon said that removal of debris would be the primary challenge in rehabilitating the coral reef.

He also said that underwater alternatives to the coral reef, such as underwater shipwrecks, could be promoted to divers.

Phummisak Hongyok, President of the Phuket Real Estate Club and a former mayor of Phuket town, said that hotel operators would suffer if tourists did not return soon.

He urged the government to attract domestic tourists to help mitigate the effect of the drop in foreign tourists over the next few months.

Bill Barnett, a hotel and property-development consultant, said that the international media has continued to paint a dire picture of post-tsunami Phuket.

He said that in fact up to 80 percent of hotel rooms on the island were not affected by the waves, but that hotel occupancy rate plummeted from 85 to 15 per cent.

Barnett urged the government to launch proactive tourism public-relation campaigns to rescue the island’s economy and tourism industry.

The round-table discussion was conducted in English and was moderated by Nation Multimedia Group’s assistant group editor Kavi Chongkittavorn.

Source: The Nation