Three months after a tsunami devastated resorts in South Asia, the region is the focus of the world's biggest tourism fair in Berlin. Tourists are being asked to return, but can the industry learn from past mistakes?
Thai resorts are spreading the message they're open for business
In a sign of how much importance Germany attaches to tourism and efforts to rebuild areas devastated by December’s tsunami, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder was on hand to open this year’s ITB tourism fair. He was the first German leader to speak at the ITB in eight years. Germany was one of the biggest donors of relief aid after the tsunami hit and its people are among the world’s most prolific travelers.
“Alongside the private and state relief aid there is now one thing that is crucial -- tourists should not take their eyes off the affected regions,” Schröder said. “That’s the only way to help give the region hope for the future. If tourists stay away, it will hit the people there hard.”
Beach clean-up on Phuket
In the fair’s Asia Pavilion, the message to visitors is: Come back -- our beaches are clean, safe and ready to welcome you.
German appeal to industry
But the German government likely won’t be thrilled to hear that it’s all business as usual. Before the ITB opened, German Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul appealed to the tourism industry to take responsibility for reconstruction in tsunami-affected areas. The mistakes of the past should not be repeated, she warned. Instead, she called for “intelligent solutions” -- sustainable tourism that would benefit both tourists and locals and protect the natural beauty of tourist destinations.
In countries such as Thailand, where tourism was already highly developed before the tsunami struck, experts at the ITB said there’s little chance of that happening.
“The window of opportunity was open briefly, but it has already shut,” said a German hotelier based on the Thai island of Phuket. Before the tsunami, Patong, the island’s most famous town, was known for its crowded strip studded with flashy discos and cocktail bars -- and its equally crowded beach. After the tsunami swept all the beach chairs and vendor stands into the sea, there was talk of redoing the beach more tastefully, with just one or two rows of beach chairs. “Now, it’s already back to four rows,” he said.
Jürgen Kripl, a German hotel manager also working in Phuket, added that it’s been very difficult to check how donations are being used in Thailand. He complained of a lack of will among Thai businesspeople in the tourism industry to see improvements through. “Foreign donations could just be used to slap up the same kind of cheap hotels and restaurants that were there before,” he said.
The German development ministry could have more luck pursuing its vision in countries where the tourism industry still has room to grow -- Sri Lanka, for example.
Peter Richter, a senior advisor for the German Technical Assistance Service (GTZ), liases with the private sector in Sri Lanka to create a better tourism infrastructure and to train locals working in the industry. The temptation among locals immediately after the tsunami, he said, was to simply get things operational again so tourist dollars would flow as quickly as possible.
Tourists to Sri Lanka could join the locals in picking tea as part of an ecotourism experience
But together with German business consultant Wilja Witcombe, he’s promoting the “Beyond Beaches” campaign, training locals how to offer tourists alternative packages around other aspects of Sri Lanka -- nature, wildlife, culture and wellness.
“Some fishermen in Sri Lanka do not want to go back out to sea because of the tsunami, so we are helping them to become tour guides of their area, training them in biodiversity, the ecosystem, things of relevance in their regions, and they can be part of the ecotourism trend,” said Witcombe.
As tragic as it was, Witcombe said that the tsunami provided an impetus among Sri Lankans who lost everything in the giant wave to rebuild their tourism industry on a more solid foundation.
“I think people are very aware of the need to do things differently,” she said. “The tsunami gave us a big push forward to get our message about alternative tourism across faster, and now, the people who didn’t listen before, and even laughed at our efforts, are listening.”
Early warning system
Germany's Minister for Research Edelgard Bulmahn, right, and her Indonesian counterpart Kusmayanto Kadiman exchange documents after signing an agreement on the building of a tsunami early warning system in Jakarta, Indonesia.
Another mistake of the past -- the lack of an early warning system for tsunamis -- also looks set to be remedied, something experts at the ITB agree will help tourists regain their trust in the region. Germany said it will build a warning system for Indonesia as part of its aid commitment to Southeast Asia. The global satellite-based system was designed by the Helmholtz Association, Germany’s largest research institution. The Geoscience Center in Potsdam will oversee the €45 million ($60.3 million) project to build it and predicts the first buoys could be placed in Indonesian waters by October of this year. The Indonesian system can be extended to other countries; Sri Lanka has already expressed interest.