Thailand, Sri Lanka and the Maldives are among the most popular holiday destinations for Germans. But after the devastation wrought on these and other Asian resorts by the tsunamis, will Germans still go there in droves?
On Thailand's Patong Beach, tourism goes on
When the first post-tsunami photos of German tourists relaxing on Thai beaches emerged, they prompted a general feeling of shock and indignation. How can they swim and sunbathe as if nothing happened, while on other beaches, rescue workers are still searching for the bodies of those killed by the giant waves?
The German mass-circulation daily Bild brought the matter to a point when it asked: "Is it still morally acceptable to vacation in Thailand or other affected countries?"
For the president of the German travel operators' federation, the answer is: "Yes."
Westerners taking a sunbath at Patong Beach, Phuket province, Thailand on Saturday
"Aside from the help that's coming from all over the world for reconstruction in the affected areas, the best form of support is for tourists to start traveling in those countries again as soon as possible," said Klaus Laepple. "These countries should not be punished a second time through a travel boycott, because many of the locals are, to a large extent, dependent on tourism. A person who works in one of the big hotels, for example, can feed their entire family."
While the top priority in the affected regions remains humanitarian aid, the Federal Association of the German Tourism Industry (BTW) said that this week damage assessment is being carried out in the main tourism areas to decide which hotels need to be torn down and which ones only need to be renovated before they can re-open.
In the Maldives, for example, 70 percent of hotels are reported to be in good condition.
Kandolhudhoo Island, Maldives, on Sunday: Many resorts on the islands suffered only light damage.
"Trips to the Maldives have been going ahead as planned since Jan. 1," said Volker Böttcher, spokesman for German tour operator TUI. "However, we've put all our packages to Sri Lanka, Phuket, and Khao Lak in Thailand on hold until the end of January, and once that time comes, we'll reassess the situation and decide what to do."
TUI customers booked on holidays to the affected region can choose to have a refund, or be re-routed to an alternative destination. Between 70 and 80 percent of customers are choosing the latter, the company said. Among the places they can now travel to are Mexico, the Caribbean, the Canary Islands -- and Thailand.
Well-known destinations on Thailand's east coast and along the Gulf of Thailand -- resorts such as Koh Samui, Hua Hin, and Pattaya -- were untouched by the tsunamis, though some experts say European tourists would likely have to overcome a sizeable psychological barrier to go there. Repeated media images of unsuspecting tourists being engulfed by a rush of water, devastated luxury resorts, and rescue workers involved in the grim task of finding and burying the dead have left their impact.
Patong Beach in Phuket the day that disaster struck: Such scenes were limited to the country's west coast.
"Anyone in Germany who's been following the news reports about the catastrophe and who maybe doesn't have a good idea of Thailand's geography has, unfortunately, been left with the impression that the whole country is a wasteland," said one Berlin-based travel agent specializing in Asian destinations.
Still, experts say the extent to which tourism in the affected countries will be damaged depends on how long fear remains present in the minds of potential tourists.
"When it comes to such one-off events like the tsunamis, travelers typically have very short memories," Horst W. Opaschowski, head of the BAT leisure research institute in Hamburg told the Welt am Sonntag. "Our experience shows that, after a year, most people will have forgotten about it."
That has given tourism experts reason to hope that the tsunami disaster won't further burden the tourism industry as a whole, especially since it has just begun to emerge from the shadow of a long downturn caused by the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, as well as the attacks in 2002 on Bali, Indonesia, and Djerba, Tunisia.
Members of the Tunisian Jewish community look at the fire damage in the Ghriba synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia, on April 12, 2002.
"Events of nature can be judged as such. They're contained to certain regions, and the phenomenon is explainable," said Tobias Jüngert, spokesperson for the BTW.
"With the threat of terrorism after September 11 or after the attacks in Djerba, the fear of further attacks was much larger. It's impossible to narrow down or contain the motives of the attackers, the location of the attack or any possible repeats. These two incidents really hurt the industry, but we're in no way predicting any similar consequences as a result of the flood catastrophe."