Looking for a Phoenix

Can the Asian tourism industry recover from the devastation of the Bali bomb blasts? Or is it a case of a bridge too far?

It staggered from the ashes of September 11, 2001, it rose slowly, unsure of its next move, and soon it was on its feet again stumbling along towards normalcy. And then on October 12, 2002, it was brought to its knees once again, struck by the bomb blasts in Bali. And now the $476 billion tourism industry is faced with, what is arguably its biggest challenge ever - a true test of it mettle.

The World Tourism Organization, the Asia Pacific Travel Association, the World Travel and Tourism Council and other industry groups held a tourism recovery committee summit meeting in London on November 12 and 13. Topping the agenda was what to do about Bali and the effects of September 11.

"It is difficult to find a confidence crisis in the past several decades that can match what the world experienced in 2001," noted the World Tourism Organization, a United Nations agency, in a report last week on travel trade.

The bombing in Bali is not the first time terrorists have attacked tourists.

The San Francisco Chronicle said in a report that "Bali has stirred fears that tourists will be targeted in future large-scale atrocities. It has also caused industry leaders to wonder whether the travel experience will come to resemble bunking in an armed camp, rather than lazily kicking back."

In the aftermath of the Bali blasts governmental organisations and tourists took and all too familiar path: cancellations were rife, travel advisories spewed from concerned state departments and tourism offices the world over kicked into overdrive to assure visitors that their country was indeed the safest.

Vietnam and Thailand are speculating that their tourism levels will rise substantially after the Bali bombings, but whether their optimism is misplaced remains to be seen.

According to a new study by the Pacific Asia Travel Association, based in Bangkok, US visitors to Malaysia plummeted 36.7 per cent in the first six months of 2002 compared to the same period last year. The number of Americans visiting the Philippines dropped 17.2 per cent at the same time. Both countries have been sites of recent terrorist activity, some of it aimed at foreign tourists.

"Our advice to travelers considering Southeast Asia is: Go, but exercise caution and intelligent awareness," said Ken Scott, the association's director of communications.

The International Council of Tourism Partners, based in Hawaii, is urging tour operators and travel agents to register Bali-bound clients with Balinese police as part of its new Safe in Bali program.

Bali has deployed 5,600 additional police to safeguard tourists, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

World Travel and Tourism Council president Jean-Claude Baumgarten, is reported to have told the BBC, "You don't have to make a holiday resort into an armed camp. But like the airline industry did, you can start to have much more strict procedures. It will create a state of mind which will help to prevent a recurrence."

In Bali, hotel occupancy, 70 per cent before October 12, is less than 10 per cent now.