Arnie WeissmannThe loss of human life resulting from the tsunami that devastated much of south Asias coastal areas is both staggering and sobering. Staggering in the sheer number of dead over a wide area and sobering as a reminder that sunny days, both symbolic and literal, reveal nothing about what the future holds, not even the future of the next few moments.

Thats not the most cheerful of new years greetings, but it seems to be the lesson of the new millennium. The lesson comes at us both emotionally and intellectually -- our hearts are torn by unreal photos and footage, first of 9/11, then the bombings in Bali, Jakarta and Madrid, the war in Iraq, and now the tsunami.

There are, of course, differences between natural tragedies and the chaos that results from violence-based ideologies. But the combination of the two has seemed relentless, particularly in Asia, where even the most optimistic tourism officials must be dwelling on the story of Sisyphus, who toiled endlessly rolling a heavy boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down when it got to the top.

In fact, Asian travel industry officials couldnt be blamed if they feel they have it worse than Sisyphus -- with 9/11, SARS, terrorism, avian flu and now the tsunami, the boulder never quite makes it to the top before it starts rolling down again.

Those of us who dont do business directly in Asia look at the region with sympathy and sorrow, but I suspect, on a different scale, most of us arent feeling particularly comfortable ourselves -- were beginning to learn not to let our guard down. Before the tsunami, 2004 gave the appearance that it would close out as a year of recovery for the travel industry without grave setback.

But in reality, the industrys recovery seemed fragile at best. It isnt as if the underlying problems of 2001, 2002 and 2003 actually were resolved in 2004.

Rather, travelers seemed to have decided en masse to ignore lackluster global economic conditions, terrorism and war, and went on vacation anyway.

No one in the industry is complaining, mind you, but if much of the recovery is being credited to pent-up demand, now that pent-up demand has been satisfied, can momentum be maintained?

Id like to think it can. Humans seem defined by an ability to adapt, to adjust to new definitions of normal.

If nothing untoward happened to travelers in the uncertain world of 2004, theres no reason to think they wont want to travel in 2005. But they, too, may keep their guard up.

When life looks like Easy Street, there is danger at the door, sang the Grateful Dead in the song Uncle Johns Band.

That line may well sum up a new wariness felt by both travelers and the industry when things begin to appear to take a turn for the better.

The band of the song title is playing to the rising tide, but we can hope, as the new year begins, that a new familiarity with both Easy Street and danger results in what may be a watchful, but very rewarding, 2005.


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