A vacation in tsunami's wake?

Their honeymoon was booked for Dec. 28 with a stay on the idyllic island of Phuket. Then the tsunami hit. The New York couple agonized about whether to go, drawing up long lists of pros and cons.

"It was a very tough call," says Heather Dolstra, their travel agent in Washington, D.C. Their greatest concern, she says, was whether they would be overwhelmed emotionally by what they saw. In the end, they left for Bangkok as scheduled but changed the island portion of their trip.

As news coverage brought the devastation and loss of life around the Indian basin into everyone's living-room, many tourists with holidays booked to Asia struggled with whether it is prudent, helpful, or even ethical to vacation in disaster-hit regions.

Photos of European tourists sunning themselves as tractors claw away debris in the background smack of insensitivity. Yet staying away might not be the best answer either.

"You have to compare whether it would make any difference to their lives if you didn't go ahead ... to the difference it would make to their lives if you did," says Vani Borooah, professor of applied economics at the University of Ulster. If you didn't go, it wouldn't benefit them one bit, he says.

While the economic argument may seem irrefutable, he acknowledges that it is "slightly ghoulish" going to a place that has been devastated. "The houses are flattened and people are hungry and thirsty. It is physically repugnant." But on balance, he says, going ahead is the right thing to do.

The US State Department doesn't seem to agree. On its website, it encourages Americans to defer all nonessential travel to the affected areas. At the same time, the Tourism Authority of Thailand and the Sri Lanka Tourist Board are strongly urging tourists to follow through on vacation plans, as are many tour operators and local hoteliers.

"One of the most heart-warming effects of this tragedy has been the reaction of the foreign visitors," the chairman of the Sri Lanka Tourist Board said, according to hospitality.net. "[They] have insisted to continue their holidays collaborating with the cleaning up, or travelling to unaffected areas of the countries, thus contributing to the early recovery of tourism."

Local papers in Thailand, like the Phuket Gazette, urge tourists not to cancel, pointing out that residents will have to deal not only with their grief but with unemployment, too.

"The worst punishment would be not to go back," René-Marc Chikli, the president of the French Association of Tour Operators, said. "If we succeed in re-employing just one person, we keep a family alive."

For many of these coastal regions, tourism is the powerhouse of the economy. In Thailand, for instance, tourism makes up 6 percent of gross domestic product. So in the first three days of January a shudder of a different sort was felt when international arrivals at Bangkok Airport dropped 27 percent.

"With alternative activities such as fishing, agricultural, etc. likely to require a great amount of time to recover, these regional economies are now more dependent than ever on tourism," e-mails David Weaver, professor of tourism management at the University of South Carolina.

But deciding to take your vacation in a devastated region requires extra sensitivity. Hedonistic, self-indulgent behavior and the usual raucous exploits of tourists are inappropriate, experts say. "Tourists who want a 'normal' leisure holiday should be advised to stay away," Dr. Weaver says.

Tourists themselves are torn. One blogger on the phuket.com forum, booked to go to the Thai resort of Patong, asks: "The economy needs our trade but can we face the dilemma of going to a place where we know such tragedy has occurred?"

Edward Hasbrouck, author of "The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World," agrees. "It's difficult for me to comprehend the mindset of someone who would enjoy a holiday surrounded by such suffering, and in the midst of relief and reconstruction efforts," he says in an e-mail from his vacation in China.

One alternative, of course, is to cancel the vacation and give the money to a charity. The problem here, says Professor Borooah, is the "transmissions mechanism." When you send the money to an aid agency, it eventually filters down to the area you would have holidayed in. "But if you go there directly, then you spend the money directly on the people in that particular area. And they get the benefit of the markup that they charge you."

It's an immediate and efficient way to support the community.

Another option is to take the vacation, respect the altered circumstances, and donate money or services. "A lot of tourists are professionals whose services could be very useful right now," Weaver says. By way of example, he cites Turtle Island in Fiji, where visitors who are doctors get reduced rates in exchange for medical services for the community.

In deciding whether to stay or go, tourists should judge it "in very specific terms," says Rusty Staff, president of Asia Transpacific Journeys. The TV maps may show the tsunami hit thousands of miles of coastline, but in places like Phuket, only about 5 miles of the 40-mile west coast is seriously affected, he says.

Mr. Staff also takes the longer view on recovery. His company is a case study in dealing with disasters, he says. He lists 9/11, the tourist bombing in Bali, the Iraq war, and then the SARS outbreak.

"I have seen so many horrible things happen ... but in terms of having impacts on tourism, terrorism and the [SARS] disease seem to be far greater than any natural disasters."

One ironic twist, he says, is that news coverage will mean many more Americans are aware of these resorts and may visit to play their part in the economic recovery.

And if they do go, "The best thing to go with is a sensitive heart and an open wallet," Borooah adds.

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