Does the Andaman tourist industry deserve a quick revival?

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Comment: Does the Andaman tourist industry deserve a quick revival? - January 8, 2005

Within days after the tsunami struck, began receiving emails asking that we publicize the 'second tsunami'--namely the loss of the tourism industry--unless everyone got the word out that most of the area was still open for business.

"Don't believe what you read in the press," others wrote, referring to press phrases like 'total devastation' and explaining that many resorts were open and in need of visitors.

However, we wonder if the area deserves a quick revival.

The Tourist Authority of Thailand spends huge amounts of money on Madison Avenue advertising campaigns in developed countries around the world. These campaigns are designed to give the impression that Thailand is a premium destination with the highest caliber facilities and services. It is certain that many holiday makers in the tsunami-impacted areas assumed that the authorities intended to follow basic safety precautions to protect tourists.

The reality was that those who could have warned of a disaster decided not to issue a warning when they suspected it might be warranted. This is because previous officials who dared suggest a risk to the area from natural disasters were ridiculed and drummed out of their jobs and into inactive posts--the Thai bureaucratic equivalent of being fired. How many people such warnings could have saved is uncertain, but the de-facto policy of not warning at all is saddening. Tsunamis have hit Thailand (on the Gulf of Thailand side), so these events are not unprecedented as has been claimed.

The appointment of Smith Thamsaroj (who was the official hounded into an inactive post for his previous warning) is a step in the right direction, but considering the intense worldwide media scrutiny, it was probably inevitable.

Before new campaigns are launched insisting that most of the area is still open for business and that the foreign press is exaggerating the extent of the damage, we think that the authorities need to show that there is a real commitment to basic visitor safety and, most importantly, that relevant officials can act without interference from powerful forces within the tourism industry. Until this can be shown, the frantic calls to revive the industry seem hollow.

And to the many tour companies asking us to help spread the word that the Phuket area is open for business, we are going to wait for now...

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