SAN FRANCISCO -- Forest fires in Indonesia, a regional economic
collapse and an oil spill off Singapore have darkened what was
considered a bright tourism picture in Southeast Asia.
The fires, which were set by farmers to clear land, have
blanketed a sizable part of Southeast Asia in a veil of haze and
are gaining ground thanks to El Nino, the weather phenomenon that
experts say has delayed the monsoon season. "Because it's dry, it
only exacerbated the haze situation," said K. H. Cheah, vice
president of Tourism Malaysia.
"What we are going to do is inform the people regularly of the
impact [of the fires]," Cheah said. "From what I see lately, it has
cleared. It has already come down from an unhealthy situation to
good or moderate."
Ken Fish, who owns New York-based Absolute Asia, said, "We've
faced, besides the environmental concerns, two other potential
crisis situations with the coup in Cambodia and the financial
crises in Southeast Asia, so it's pretty interesting to see our
little region on the front page of the newspapers. Clearly, it's
had an ominous impact on travel throughout Southeast Asia." Fish
and other tour operators and tourism officials noted that the haze
has affected mostly Singapore, Malaysia and secondary destinations
in northern Indonesia.
"I would say there's a pretty common perception that the entire
region has been affected," Fish said. "We haven't had any
cancellations, but we've had a lot of concern."
Another tour operator, however, turned the situation around. "I
think it gives the Southeast Asia area a new opportunity," Kurt
Bodmer, vice president of business development for San Diego-based
Japan & Orient Tours, said. "The currency is now playing in our
favor. We are repackaging and using the new exchanges, so people
are already taking advantage of it."
Charles Leong, senior vice president in the Americas for the
Singapore Tourist Promotion Board, said he believes that although
tourism might take a short-term hit, the situation could have been
worse for his city-state. "I think we can expect to see a decline
in October partly because of the haze and partly because of the
devalued currencies," said Leong, who called on Southeast Asian
governments to address the traditional late-summer practice of
slash-and-burn agriculture in Indonesia. "Hopefully this situation
has taught people a lesson," he said.
Apprehension regarding the fires' smoke and haze can have a
ripple affect on other destinations in the region, according to Amy
Chan, executive director of the Hong Kong Tourist Association. Hong
Kong, already in the midst of a tourism drop, stands to take a hit
because many travelers transit the gateway city on their way to
other Southeast Asian destinations or add a few days there at the
beginning or end of their itineraries.
So far, cruise ships are repositioning to Southeast Asia on
schedule, despite the haze. "We've had a few calls from concerned
travel agents [and] customers," said Donna Remillard, vice
president of marketing for Radisson Seven Seas, which operates 16
Southeast Asia cruises per year on its Song of Flower.
Richard Steck, communications executive for Royal Caribbean,
said, "We've not had any cancellations yet for our Sun Viking,
which is over there, and we don't anticipate any," he said. "We
really anticipate that if the monsoons just get started, they will
blow it all away and drown it out, and we won't have any problems
at all, and that's what we're advising our passengers."