Recovering from the tsunami

How did the tourism industry respond to the emergency and what are the issues in the long term

The world changed on 26 December 2004, when 12 countries suffered tsunami as the result of a massive earthquake in the Indian Ocean. Nearly 300,000 people lost their lives, whilst millions have lost their livelihoods.

It took a few days for anyone to realise the true scale of the devastation and the wholesale obliteration of once thriving communities that had been dependent on tourism. Popular destinations in Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, The Maldives, India's south east coast and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands were badly affected, and some resorts were completely wiped off the map. Tourism in the region is estimated to be worth some US$30 billion and, for each person working in a resort or hotel there are often many more who depend upon the industry for their income.

It is therefore vital that the major focus is on rebuilding the mechanisms by which so many people can earn their living and that the tourism industry is fully involved in the reconstruction process.

The industry's response

Thousands of foreign tourists were killed in the disaster or are still missing, including more than 1,000 Germans, 786 Swedes and 270 British. Among the chaos of searching for victims, an immediate priority was to get surviving holidaymakers home. In the UK for example, 10,000 Britons were affected, of whom 6,500 were covered through membership of the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA).

However, ABTA also brought back independent travellers where there was capacity on aircraft. Within 24 hours of the catastrophe, the International Business Leaders Forum (IBLF) sent out a 'management action brief calling for global industry leaders throughout the world to demonstrate leadership in applying their much needed management skills and business resources to the recovery effort.

It highlighted the importance of local co-ordination and cautioned against well-meaning donors complicating the scene by sending irrelevant material aid 'which can fatally distract rescue and recovery operations' instead of working through experienced agencies. A number of organisations such as the UN Global Compact and the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre promoted the brief as guidance to businesses around the world.

The International Tourism Partnership (ITP) is leading consultations with members of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), WWF, Conservation International (CI)' German Technical Cooperation (GTZ), the Tour Operators Initiative (T01), the International Hotels and Restaurants Association (IH&RA), the Travel Foundation, Tourism Concern, the Centre for Responsible Tourism and major hotel groups on how the private sector can collectively help to re-establish the local economies that underpin tourism in the affected countries in a sustainable manner. Tourism boards in the affected countries were quick to appeal to holidaymakers not to avoid the region, as it needs tourism revenue now more than ever.

The Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) published a bulletin on how to help the affected communities. It also launched the PATA Tsunami Recovery Fund which has a strong focus on human resource development and training, to help rebuild skills and the livelihoods of tourism employees. Travel guide publisher Lonely Planet published information about affected destinations via bookshops and its website together with practical information on how to give blood to help survivors or make donations to organisations working in the region.

It continues to publish information on untouched destinations that would love to see visitors. In the UK, The Travel Foundation met with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in January to discuss its role in the long term rebuilding of tourism in the tsunami affected areas. The World Tourism Organisation (WTO), academics, NGOs and travel companies including British Airways, ABTA, Thomas Cook, First Choice and other leading travel companies were represented.

Practical and financial help

Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) volunteers are contributing to the long-term development efforts in the region and VSO has called for both donations and more volunteers. They require experienced professionals with backgrounds in education, health and social development and management professionals who can assist local government and civil society institutions in responding to the effects of the disaster.

Many hotels in the affected areas helped to locate people and provide food, shelter and clothing, and hotel associates around the world donated a day's pay to the appeal. In Thailand, for example, the J W Marriott Phuket Resort and Spa converted their ballroom into an aid station and Starwood Hotels & Resorts set up a group-wide relief fund.

To help the economy, the company also moved their regional sales and marketing conference for 140 delegates in March from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Phuket.

In Qatar the Ritz-Carlton Doha provided accommodation for Four Seasons' guests who had been stranded in the Maldives and set up an internet cafe so they could contact family members whilst the Sheraton Doha Hotel & Resort donated clothes, sheets and towels via the Red Crescent and organised a collection.

In India, the TATA group of companies which owns Taj Hotels set up camps for communities in the badly hit Tamil Nadu region.

Travel Agents together set up a fund of GBP30,000 to go towards water purification in Sri Lanka.

  • The global travel industry charity 'Just a Drop' made several significant contributions towards the victims' initial needs as well as organising shipments of bottled water to Sri Lanka and Indonesia. The charity launched an appeal with Travel Weekly UK for travel agents to collect spare foreign currency in their shops. The International Institute for Peace through Tourism (IIPT) also set up a special 'Just a Drop' appeal.
  • Travel agency Travel Counsellors kicked off the Travel Industry Earthquake Appeal with a donation of GBP10,000 to help relief agencies such as Save the Children, Oxfam, Tearfund, Cafod, Christian Aid and the British Red Cross.
  • Intrepid Travel raised more than Aus$224,000 to support Medecins Sans Frontieres and PLAN reconstruction programmes.
  • Exodus contributed GBP10,000 to its partners in Sri Lanka to help with the rebuilding and to mitigate Losses through group cancellations. The tour operator is also making a GBP20 contribution for every booking received for holidays in Sri Lanka, Southern India or Thailand in the first six months of 2005.
  • InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) Launched its 'From the Heart' fund-raising week on Valentine's Day, 14 February. Participating IHG hotels invited guests to donate US$2 or more per stay to support UNICEF's and other charities' tsunami relief and recovery efforts and this has been matched with up to US$2 per donation. The group has so far raised around US$654,000 through donations from employees, franchisees, Priority Club Rewards members and its own donation of US$125,000.
  • Marriott International donated US$100,000 for immediate and long term assistance via the American Red Cross and Habitat for Humanity International. An additional US$25,000 was given to help rebuild homes for hotel associates at the JW Marriott Phuket Resort and Spa and their neighbours who were affected by the disaster. A link to the Red Cross and Red Crescent organisations was put on the home page of Marriott's website to enable customers to contribute.
  • Hilton Group committed an initial donation of GBP100,000 from The Hilton in the Community Foundation, and a further GBP100,000 from its betting and gaming division Ladbrokes to aid relief. Members of Hilton's Loyalty scheme have been converting their points into donations to the International Red Cross. Various fundraising and support initiatives throughout Scandic, Hilton and Conrad hotels worldwide have been carried out, including the Hilton Colombo which sent two truck Loads of blankets, medicines and bottled water to locally affected areas.
  • Carlson Hotels Worldwide and its brand joined with Carlson companies in a company-wide campaign involving employees and guests. Links were posted on all brand web sites to enable visitors to make direct contributions to the World Childhood Foundation and UNICEF.
  • The Minor Group set up two recovery funds, the Minor Tsunami Recovery Fund for south Thailand to channel money through Local community organisations, and a fund to help affected employees rebuild their homes and lives. Minor's Royal Garden Resorts is the owner of JW Marriott Phuket Resort & Spa, the Marriott hotels in Bangkok, Hua Hin and Pattaya as well as Four Seasons and Anantara hotels in Thailand. The Anantara Khao Lak was destroyed by the tsunami.
  • Small Luxury Hotels (SLH) established a relief fund to support the families of staff members lost at the Anantara Resort in Khao Lak, Thailand. Member hotels have each been asked to contribute.
  • The Hotel and Catering International Management Association (HCIMA) launched the HClMA Asia Relief Fund, allocating GBP £10,OOO towards professional re-development to help the association's affected international groups and members.
  • Hotels in Marrakech, Morocco donated stays at their properties to be raffled in aid of Room to Read, an educational charity which launched a special fund to rebuild schools in Sri Lanka that were destroyed or damaged. American Express donated US $l million and is matching employee donations to the relief effort.

Re-building the industry for a sustainable future

Donations continue to be important, as will be the process of identifying and creating warning systems and safeguards to prevent such wide-scale loss ever occurring again. However, the immediate priority is to ensure that the money is directed to help the people who most need it, into meaningful projects, and that the tourism industry is rebuilt on a more sustainable basis.

As Justin Francis, founder of warned in The Guardian newspaper: "The real question is whether the industry and tourists will be able to look into the eyes of the poorest local people, those who we've watched suffering on our TV screens, having found new ways for them to share in the benefits of tourism in their homes. Many of the luxurious lodges are partly or wholly owned by overseas investors rather than local people. They are insured and will be quickly rebuilt. Millions will be spent re-marketing them in the coming months, while uninsured local tourism enterprises will struggle to re-establish themselves and gain access to tourists".

He called for new measures to be used for tourism -such as how much money reaches local people, balanced against the impacts of tourism on a destination's natural and cultural heritage -rather than simply counting the number of international visitor arrivals.

I n the eyes of The International Centre for Responsible Tourism it is the crafters, artists, performers, guides, fruit vendors and the vibrant local community who create much of what is meant by the holiday 'experience''- In addition to the employment generated by hotels and restaurants, these roles support many households in coastal communities.

"Tour operators and hoteliers, by working in partnership with local communities, can make an enormous difference to the re-establishment of informal sector tourism products and helping them to regain and grow their markets" says Harold Goodwin, the centre's Director. The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) committed to rebuild Phuket along sustainable lines, starting with its best-known beach, Patong.

Along with the bicycle lanes, public transport and parking areas that are planned, it is to be hoped that Thailand will also find solutions to other problems such as child prostitution and sex tourism. WWF called on governments to ensure that efforts to rebuild livelihoods devastated by the tsunami are environmentally sustainable. It coincided with the opening by the United Nations of the conference on the vulnerability of small island developing states (SIDS) in Mauritius.

"Healthy ecosystems can save lives", said Isabelle Louis, Director of the WWF Asia Pacific Programme. Places that had healthy coral reefs and intact mangroves, which act as natural buffers, were less badly hit by the tsunami than those where the reefs had been damaged and mangroves ripped out and replaced by prawn farms and poorly planned beachfront hotels".

Long-term green reconstruction efforts should therefore capitalise on nature's defence mechanisms, appropriate coastal zone planning the rehabilitation of habitats and restoration of sustainable livelihoods. Tourism Concern asked the UK government to focus on fair trade, not just aid, in rebuilding tourism in the devastated areas and pledged to bring the voices of those in the affected destinations into the dialogue with government, civil society and industry.

It has asked the government to use its aid policy to focus on the structures of the tourism industry in the region and to encourage recipients of aid to develop sustainable tourism, fair shares and diversification. The WTO has drawn up the Phuket Action Plan for Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Thailand and Indonesia with the aim of restoring traveller confidence in the region to speed up recovery. In January, the Sri Lanka Tourism Board launched 'Bounce Back Sri Lanka', a campaign to fast-track tourism redevelopment by inviting more than 350 industry and media personnel to visit the country. Banyan Tree has entered into a partnership with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) on a joint recovery effort in the Maldives. In Thailand, Hilton has pledged its continued commitment to the country with at least three new hotel openings planned over the next three years in Phuket, Bangkok and Krabi.

How individuals can help

  • If you wish to make a donation, make sure it is through a recognised relief fund. Several organisations (such as the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) and Oxfam) now have sufficient funds and have closed their appeals. Check out project-based initiatives such as
  • Book your holiday in an Indian Ocean destination and persuade friends and colleagues to do the same. Choose a tour operator that practices responsible tourism so that local communities can benefit. The following websites are useful:

The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) travel choice

The Responsible Tourism Partnership

Centre for Environmentally Responsible Tourism (CERT)

Use your holiday to assist with rebuilding and providing other practical help through a volunteer travel vacation. Organisations to contact include:


Don't forget

  • When making donations remember those in need elsewhere in the world, such as Sudan, whose plight has been eclipsed from the headlines by recent events.
  • Why not make responsible tourism your objective when planning any holiday in future?

1 The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that at least one million people have lost their livelihoods in Sri Lanka and Indonesia alone. See

2 Natural Disasters and Tourism, published March 2005. See


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