Tsunami rips coast resorts

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NEW YORK -- Literally in the wake of a massive tsunami that devastated coastal areas throughout south and southeast Asia, government and travel industry officials are just now beginning to assess damage to the vital tourism infrastructure that in some popular resort areas amounted to total destruction.

In Thailand, one of the most severely impacted areas was Phuket, where enormous waves and walls of water crashed into coastal towns and beach resorts lining the Andaman coast along the western portion of the island, which accounts for about 40% of the countrys $10 billion tourism industry.

According to the Tourism Authority of Thailand, beachfront resorts lining the Andaman coast incurred severe damage and destruction.

The airport remains open and operational, and resorts along Thailands east coast on the Gulf of Siam, including Pattaya, Cha-Am, Hua Hin and Koh Samui, were unaffected.

Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department urged Americans to avoid all nonemergency travel to the Asian countries affected by the tsunami, with coastal areas of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, India and the Maldives the hardest hit.

Resorts

On the hard-hit west coast of Thailand, the Krabi Resort on Krabi was severely damaged, the tourism authority said.

On Phi Phi island, where the film The Beach, starring Leonardo DiCaprio was filmed, the tourism authority reported total destruction. In Phang-Nga province, several resorts along Khao Lak Beach were destroyed.

French hotelier Accor said it had 350 guests staying at its Sofitel Magic Lagoon Khao Lak hotel in Phuket when the tsunami struck, causing severe damage. As many as 250 employees worked there.

Accor said there were no reported victims at two other resorts it manages on Phuket, the Novotel Phuket and Panwa Beach Resort.

Singapores Banyan Tree Group, which operates high-end properties in Phuket and the Maldives, reported relatively minor damage to its resorts.

Banyan Tree said three of its five resorts at the Laguna Phuket development were affected, with one resort, the Dusit Laguna, reporting one missing guest.

The company said the Banyan Tree Maldives Vabbinfaru and Angsana Maldives Ihuru suffered minor damage and are operational, while its Deer Park Hotel in Sri Lanka was unaffected. However, the opening of Banyans Swanee Hotel on Sri Lankas Beruwela beach, which was under construction, has been postponed until late 2005.

Taj Hotels, Resorts & Palaces reported it will close the Taj Exotica Resort & Spa in the Maldives for two months of repairs. Taj said its Fishermans Cove in Chennai, its three Taj hotels in Sri Lanka and its Coral Reef resort in the Maldives are functioning normally.

Club Med said one employee at its resort in Phuket was killed by the tidal wave, which also hit Club Med resorts in Kani and Faru in the Maldives.

Kerzner International reported no significant damage to its properties in the Maldives, where it manages and owns a 20% interest in the 100-room One&Only Kanuhura. It is also the manager and developer of the 130-room One&Only Reethi Rah, slated to open in the second quarter of 2005.

Kerzner said the properties sustained some flooding, adding that both properties were covered by insurance.

Tour operators

Operators of tours and vacation packages to Southeast Asia were kept busy fielding phone calls, tracking passengers and reassuring travel agents and family members regarding the well-being of their clients and rerouting passengers.

Many of our areas were affected, said Ashish Sanghrajka, director of Asia and the Orient for Big Five Tours. Thailand was probably the biggest tourist area affected besides Sri Lanka. But it was the coastal areas that were most affected, the coastal villages where there are very fragile homes.

According to Sanghrajka, Big Five rerouted clients going to Phuket, with some rerouted to Ko Samui, an island on the other side of Thailand that wasnt affected, and some to Trang, a city south of Phuket with a beach that was not damaged. A number of travelers decided to forego the beach and went to Siem Reap, Cambodia, to see Angkor Wat. 

The Colombo [Sri Lanka] airport is open, said Sanghrajka. We had a client flying from Mumbai to Colombo on Sunday. But the damage was in the low-lying areas, not the busy, well-traveled areas. The flight left as scheduled.

Big Five also had clients in Chennai, India, which is just north of Sri Lanka. But even there, the area most affected was around the low-lying coastal villages, said Sanghrajka. The tour is still happening as planned. The airport is still functioning normally.

Abercrombie & Kent reported that its on-site offices in Thailand, Hong Kong and India coordinated arrangements for clients who were traveling in the areas affected by the tsunami.

The offices contacted customers, informed them of conditions on the ground and suggested alternate arrangements. Customers who had planned to travel to Phuket were rerouted to Danang, Vietnam; Hong Kong; and Chiang Rai, Thailand.

One honeymoon couple at the Angsana in the Maldives, which was unaffected, continued their vacation as planned. 

The effect on the Maldives was very arbitrary, said Max Ali, director of sales at Sita World Travel. A few places were badly damaged, some not at all. We had some guests at the Taj Coral Reef. Its right on the beach of a very small island, and it was not affected at all.

None of Sitas passengers in the area was hurt, Ali said, but it will take some time for a full assessment of the damage to the tourist areas affected by the disaster. It may be some time until Phuket recovers in the areas where there was the worst damage, he said. But we had one couple at the Hilton Arcadia beach resort, and there was only a little damage to the resort itself. No one was hurt.

We are now involved in seeing that people are well taken care of, he said.

Cruise

Cruise ships in Asia were relatively unaffected by the earthquake and tsunami that swept across the Indian Ocean.

Thats partly because the Indian Ocean is one of the least-traveled cruise regions in the world by North American-sourced ships. In 2004, the region accounted for .01% of total bed days (a measure of capacity) of Cruise Lines International Association member lines, according to the organization.

The 10,544 bed days that CLIA reported for the Indian Ocean region last year were dwarfed by more than 31 million bed days in the Caribbean.

Of the cruise ships in the region, Star Clippers 170-passenger Star Flyer, which sails regularly from Phuket between December and March, was in Pangkor Island, Malaysia, at the time of the earthquake, well away from the epicenter, Star Clippers said. 

The Star Flyer is scheduled to return to its Phuket homeport on Jan. 8. Cruise line officials said the citys deep-water seaport was not damaged.

Star Cruises, meanwhile, altered voyages of its SuperStar Virgo and SuperStar Gemini for the foreseeable future to avoid calling in Phuket.

Given the magnitude of the natural disaster ... Star Cruises has decided on the change in the best interests of its passengers, the line said.

The Seabourn Spirit, which was cruising from Singapore to Hong Kong at the time of the quake, and Swan Hellenics Minerva II, sailing in India, continued to cruise without incident. The Minerva IIs Jan. 1 sailing, however, was forced to alter its itinerary.

Seabourn said its ship reported no sensation of the quake or the tsunami.

The Spirit is scheduled to cruise to Phuket and Yangon, Myanmar, in mid-January. It is too soon to assess the extent of damages and their affect on that cruise at this point, a spokesman said.

To contact reporter Jorge Sidron, send e-mail to [email protected].

Rebecca Tobin and David Cogswell contributed to this report.

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