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In the west, as many were relaxing after Christmas Day, the images of devastation were shocking, prompting a massive global fundraising effort which contributed over $14bn in aid to the affected countries.
One of the deadliest natural disasters in history, in all, 14 countries were affected, many of which were centres of tourism. Indonesia suffered the most, followed by Sri Lanka, India and Thailand.
The shift of plates were so extensive that the effects were felt around the world into February and the Indian Andaman and Nicobar islands were measured to have shifted 1.25m to the south west and sunk 1m into the sea. Below the sea in the earthquake zone, surveys revealed that massive landslips and huge chunks of rock weighing millions of tons had shifted – sometimes by many kilometres – and a huge trench had opened up, radically altering the seabed in that region.
On land, even though the tsunamis hit up to 90 minutes to two hours after the earthquake, the loss of life was extensive partly because many tourists were unfamiliar with the signs of an impending tsunami and did not head for higher ground as seas receded. At the time there was no tsunami warning system around the Indian Ocean. Without the warning there would have been little chance of escaping since the wave was estimated to have reached 80ft high as it struck the coastline in some parts, rising to 100ft as it travelled inland.
In the wake of the destruction and loss of life, the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System was implemented and activated in 2006. It has been successfully employed in more recent years.
The role of hotels
The wider implication of the 2004 tsunami was a realisation by many hotel chains that they had a bigger role to play during times of disaster.
Often located in tourist regions which are more prone to environmental disasters, but frequently built from more sturdy materials than local homes, and with their own power generators, hotels often become islands of sanctuary for people caught up in disaster situations.
In tourist areas following the 2004 tsunami, although some hotels and spas were forced to close due to damage or affected power and water supplies, many hotels were back up to full operation within days of the event; but things may not have been so straightforward for their staff, many of whom would have been personally affected.
In 2012, UNESCO published their document A Guide to Tsunami for Hotels which aims to provide guidance to tsunami preparedness and offers a toolkit on planning and procedures as well as evacuation plans, and investigating whether the hotel itself can act as an evacuation site.
It points out that hotels should register and co-ordinate with local disaster management offices and other agencies which will have a part to play like the Red Cross.
The logistics in 2004 of caring for injured and displaced people as well as getting many thousands of tourists home, made it clear that all hotels should have – and make staff aware of – a disaster action and relief strategy ready to implement if necessary.
Because tourism locations were affected and therefore had a wider impact for livelihoods and potential for longer lasting effects, in 2004 the tourism industry itself reacted, with tourism operators and travel agents, as well as several large hotel companies themselves raising money for water purification, health services, disaster relief and charities like UNICEF providing support across the entire affected region. ITP members including IHG, Hilton Worldwide, Marriott International and Carlson Rezidor were among those inspiring guests to donate and providing positive action.
The rebuilding effort also presented hoteliers with the opportunity to work with local communities to create a more sustainable tourism industry that would protect natural resources and create diverse careers and businesses for local people.
There is however even more that hotels can do besides being disaster-ready. Companies like IHG have realised the very powerful potential role hotels can have in disaster situations and therefore operate Shelter in a Storm; their programme which rolls out in the event of a disaster to assist as required. In 2012 it supported ten disasters in six countries including Hurricane Sandy in the USA. In 2013 it assisted in fifteen disasters in eight countries. Efforts can involve housing local people or staff and their families who have lost homes, or supporting hotel engineers to help with the rebuilding effort.
To support this activity IHG hosts an annual fundraising initiative in autumn called Race Around the World in which thousands of international staff take part in activities and raise awareness and money amongst guests of the Shelter in a Storm programme. Financial support is a really valuable way for hotel companies to help via their corporate giving.
At a more basic level, goods and necessities like bedding, toiletries, toothbrushes and bottled water can be donated during a disaster to aid affected people. The hotel could act as a safe base for those co-ordinating the relief effort, or provide meals. Drivers and vehicles and medically trained staff may also prove invaluable.
Other hotels with funds and / or relief programmes include Hilton Disaster Recovery, Hyatt Disaster Relief, Starwood Associate Relief Fund and the Marriott Fund.
The 2004 tsunami was a tragic disaster affecting many hundreds of thousands of people, their homes and businesses. The environmental consequences are still in evidence in some areas. But history provides valuable lessons and today more hotels are aware of the important role they play within their communities and they have implemented robust disaster relief plans should the worst happen. Many millions of dollars have been raised internationally to aid affected people and preparedness for the future is greatly improved.
On Thursday 29th January Green Hotelier will be hosting our first Twitter chat of the year discussing the role of hotels in disaster relief. Join the debate, pose your own questions, cite examples of hotels which have made a difference. Is there more the industry could be doing? Join us. #GHdebates.