Fires, Economy Mar S.E. Asia's Tourism Picture

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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."

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