I was speaking last
week with a casual acquaintance and asked if she had a nice holiday
over the New Year. She told me about a trip she had taken where she
had encountered a few minor travel hassles. At least I wasnt
vacationing in ... that place, she said.
Where? I asked.
You know, where
they had the tidal wave, she said.
made me cringe, but hadnt prepared me for a question from an
industry friend who wondered whether, because of the tsunami, he
should cancel a trip to Delhi he was planning in April. I replied
that was like asking if he should cancel a trip to St. Louis
because a hurricane hit Miami four months earlier.
As in the aftermath
of other disasters, there will be two classes of victims of the
tsunami, direct and indirect. The media has effectively covered the
plight of the direct. The indirect are those across South Asia and
parts of Africa who will feel the economic aftershocks that occur
when geographic ignorance collides with travel planning.
The lack of
geographical knowledge among some Americans is certainly
embarrassing, but worse, its harmful to people who work in
countries traumatized by catastrophe.
Most tourist sites
in the affected countries were unaffected by the tsunami. The
economies of these countries will be burdened by relief efforts,
and it certainly wont help the economic picture if travelers avoid
the entire region.
Travel agents, tour
operators and hoteliers can give geography lessons to clients
planning to visit affected areas, but perhaps more importantly, the
industry is in a unique position to help the survivors who were
more directly impacted by the tsunami.
Ive seen reports
that resorts in certain affected areas, like Phuket, Thailand, are
undamaged and ready for business. Would I recommend sending someone
there? At this point, I think its understandable that people
wouldnt want to vacation in an area that has recently undergone a
disaster. Could you relax, guilt-free, in a swimming pool while
half the people in town are in mourning?
But I would also
keep in mind the uplifting effect tourism can have for people
living where calamity has recently struck. And tourisms positive
potential can take effect much sooner than most people might
For instance, it
made national news when, by Columbus Day 2001, travel agency owner
Sho Dozono of Azumano Travel in Portland, Ore., brought a group of
900 members of his local chamber of commerce to New York following
the attacks of 9/11.
He called it the
Flight for Freedom and did it in part because he knew New York was
a great destination, in part because prices were attractive and in
part to demonstrate solidarity between Portlanders and New
That trip had an
important symbolic impact on both the travelers and the hosts that
was far greater than the economic benefit. It was seen as an
encouraging sign, during very dark days, that the return to
normalcy had begun.
the critical, lifesaving needs of the surviving victims of the
tsunami have been met, theyll still be in need of economic
attention and shows of support from the outside world.
While I bemoan the
level of geographical awareness in this country, its hard to
overestimate the generosity of Americans. Once the basic
infrastructure of affected areas is back in place, group visits,
like Dozonos to New York, could be promoted as inherently
interesting and as an opportunity to show support for people
Id imagine that
clients who might otherwise return from a trip with complaints
about conditions in developing countries would, in this instance,
come back satisfied to have made a connection with people who, in
every sense, live in a world apart.