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Washed Away

The Asian Tsunami spread a swathe of destruction on Boxing Day last year. But after the headlines fade and the aid work is finished, what will be the lasting effects on tourism? Nick Ryan investigates.



IT RIPPED across the Indian Ocean with a fury to match Biblical prophecy. The lives and livelihoods it destroyed in its wake seemed almost too great to measure. With the deathtoll nearing 300,000, and a confusing blend of both negative and heart-rending images, has the Asian Tsunami dealt a deathblow to tourism?

Countries from Indonesia, to Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, the Maldives, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Malaysia and even east Africa were affected. Perhaps most seriously hit was the Indonesian province of Aceh (already wracked by civil war) on the island of Sumatra, as well as the coastal areas of Sri Lanka and the Maldives, lying just a few metres above sea level.

Much of Indonesia's tourist regions were protected due to distance and topography. The government estimates that reconstruction will cost $4.5bn (£2.4bn) over the next three years. Malaysia was mostly protected thanks to sheltering by Sumatra: there was some damage and nearly 70 fatalities in the northwest peninsula, but the effects were relatively light, said the Malaysian Hotels Association.

Thailand, however, did suffer over 5,000 deaths, including many foreigners. Affected areas included Phuket, Phi Phi, Krabi, Khao Lak & Koh Lanta. Reconstruction has been swift and the Tourism Authority of Thailand is engaged in a proactive marketing campaign to revitalise tourism in the south.

Sri Lanka suffered more from the Tsunami than anywhere else apart from Indonesia. Southern and eastern coastlines have been ravaged. Homes, crops and fishing boats have all been destroyed. The International Labour Organisation estimates that at least 400,000 people have lost their jobs. President Chandrika Kumaratunga has launched a $3.5bn reconstruction drive, including a Bounce Back Sri Lanka tourism campaign. The Ministry of Tourism is proposing to offer low-interest loans to help uninsured hoteliers rebuild, and together with the Sri Lanka Tourist Board has developed recovery plans for 15 coastal resort towns.

Meanwhile, 20 of the Maldives' 199 inhabited islands have been described as "totally destroyed". The shallowness of the water limited the wave's destructive power, but flooding was extensive. A sea wall protecting the capital, Male, prevented half the city being destroyed, the UN said. Many luxury resorts will be closed for months.

India too was hit on its south-eastern coastlines and in the Andaman and Nicobar islands, but knock-on effects to tourism have been relatively limited. Repairing the damage is expected to cost about $1.2bn – but India is in fact providing aid to other countries hit by the Tsunami, including medical workers, supplies and cash.

Unsurprisingly, resorts and spas throughout the Indian Ocean coastal regions were among those worst hit. A number were completely destroyed, while others were forced to temporarily shut down after resorts were left without power or clean water.

One spa resort operator, Andrew Jones of Sanctuary Resorts, recalled for many the horror of the day:

"I arrived in Bangkok on Boxing Day (just after the Tsunami hit) from our property in Siem Reap. I received an SMS text message asking if I was "OK". When I asked why, I was told a Big Wave had wiped out S.E. Asia. I was shocked and went directly to a hotel in the city and tuned into BBC News and saw the unbelievable situation.

"I immediately tried to contact the resort and set up relief and recovery logistics centre in Bangkok. It was a few days of frantic telephone calls and interactions before I was able to contact our properties and the General Managers. As the area and roads had been re-opened by the authorities and police, I went to La Flora on New Years Eve and The Racha on New Years Day to assess the damage and meet up with the Managers and Staff. It was a humbling experience."

Le Meridien was forced to close its beach spa resort in Khao Lak, where seven guests and 12 staff died. The Aspara spa at the Holiday Inn Resort in Phuket was badly damaged and Intercontinental Hotels – which owns the resort – announced that the hotel and spa would be closed until further notice.

In Sri Lanka, the coastal city of Galle was badly damaged and the Lighthouse Hotel and Spa was forced to close after the Tsunami completely destroyed the lower levels of the hotel, including the spa.

Four Seasons closed its resort at Kuda Huraa in the Maldives after it was badly damaged by the tidal wave, while all guests were evacuated from the Fun Island resort in the South Male’ Atoll. Most of the resort, which is operated by Villa Hotels, was destroyed.

The Hilton Maldives Resort & Spa also escaped damage, while tour operator First Choice announced that only one of its 584 customers in the region had been killed by the waves.

Tourism accounts for around 20 per cent of the Maldives’ gross domestic product (GDP) so a drop in visitor numbers would create major pressure on the island nation’s economy. The Maldives Tourism Promotion Board, however, remains optimistic and issued a statement saying that the 87 island resorts had fared considerably better than many situated on the coastlines of neighbouring countries.

The World Tourism Organization (WTO) has said that the recent events will have only a limited impact on world tourism. Among the reasons why are the present expansion of tourism in the region and Asia’s capacity in dealing with crises.

In addition, an emergency assistance plan for tourism was adopted at a special session of the WTO Executive Council on February 1. The "Phuket Action Plan" spelled out a series of measures to kick-start the tourism sector.

"We are focusing on the human element in tourism, saving tourism jobs, relaunching small tourism-related businesses, and recovering the visitor flow that makes these economies work," said WTO Secretary-General Francesco Frangialli.

In Thailand, Phuket and other areas affected by the Tsunami are to be rebuilt in line with strict principles of sustainable development and will be used as a model for future development in Thai coastal tourism.

According to Geoffrey Lipman, President of the International Council of Tourism Partners and special adviser to the WTO , among the key lessons from the Indian Ocean disaster was the need for national crisis systems, a global disaster alert network and better public education.

"This was not just another disaster and it cannot be business as usual after this," said Lipman. "It was instant, it was massive, it was devastating and it had huge spread in the media. It continues to be visible in real time, and it brought about a global response from the whole international community.

"Everything in these countries – the people and infrastructure – is affected. However, the impact on the tourism industry is limited to three percent of world tourism and in a part of Asia that has seen high tourism growth, in a market that is very resilient and where people will return," he said.

"In the short term, this is a human tragedy requiring urgent humanitarian aid. In the long term, structural changes and recovery will see the emphasis on tourism because that is where the revenue will come from. We need a campaign that says, 'Come back to the Indian Ocean'."

Lipman added that there was an opportunity now for a fresh look at rebuilding tourism on sustainable lines, not just replacing what was lost.

Pressure group Tourism Concern agreed: "The hope is that as tourist facilities are gradually rebuilt, this awareness will inspire the tourism industry to ensure that more of the benefits go to local people to help them in the reconstruction they so desperately need."

See below the reactions from spa operators and tourism representatives in the region.

Dominique Lapointe, General Manager, Le Royal Meridien Phuket Yacht Club, Phuket, Thailand.

Photos

We were caught by surprise: it was quite early, 10am on a Sunday morning, the day after Christmas. Thankfully we didn't have too many guests out on the beach. Some boys who are out there everyday were watching the sea and they realised something was not quite right: they saw the sea drop and warned the guests to evacuate.

We were very lucky in some ways. The way the hotel is constructed is quite high up, so we weren't affected too badly. The only direct damage was to our beachfront restaurant. Across the beach from us shops and restaurants were totally destroyed. We were really lucky, you could say. We continued operating but lost electricity for 30-odd hours.

In terms of tourism, we were very badly affected. In January we typically have 85-90 percent occupancy. At the moment it's around 20 percent, so our business has been dramatically affected.

The main income in this area is from tourism: everyone is hurting. Staff usually have service charges to supplement their income, but obviously without guests that doesn't happen. Some have lost relatives or things in their houses, for which we have tried to help by collecting money through Meridien. We're working through UNICEF at the moment, so we're doing lots of different things to try and help the local communities.

The tourism authorities are being very, very active, trying to restore everything and getting in people – journalists, tour operators – at least to have a look at Phuket, to see it hasn't been so badly affected. Phuket needs to be back in business and the Thais are being very brave about things.

The future will depend on the media. A lot will depend on when people are ready to come back and want to come back.

*

Tanes Petsuwan, Director International Public Relations Division, Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT).

In mid-January the death toll stood at 5,303 (of which 1,354 were foreigners). Another 8,500 people were injured.

The estimated loss incurred due to structural damage is 30 billion baht (US$ 769.2 million). Estimated loss of tourism income for 2005 is 43 billion baht (US$ 1.1 billion). Total loss estimated is 73 billion baht (US$ 1.87 billion).

So the tourism industry has been affected, there is no doubt about that. Immediately after the disaster, arrivals at Bangkok International Airport dropped 9.17 percent (between Jan 1-16, year-on-year). Some of the other countries reporting major drops included Korea, China, Cambodia, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

However, I must point out that unlike the SARS scare, the only areas that have been affected are those provinces directly hit by the Tsunami. Mainly Phuket, Krabi and Phang Nga. People are still travelling to other destinations like Bangkok, Pattaya, Koh Samui, Chiang Mai, etc. Many have even changed their bookings from the south to these other destinations.

As for the time-span of the effects, it all depends on various factors. At TAT we’re doing our best to minimise the effects and speed up the recovery process. It is the lives of the local people, many of who were victims of the Tsunami, that are at stake.

Our campaigns are now underway. We're organising trips for media and operators in our source markets, so that they can see the situation for themselves and then spread the word. Gradually, visitors are already beginning to come back. For instance, charter flights from Stockholm have resumed to Phuket.

Certainly, we felt the need for a better balance between reporting the crisis and reporting the recovery. TV crews rushed in when the crisis broke and then rushed out just as things were getting back to normal. The impression left behind in the minds of consumers was that the crisis was still lingering. However, perhaps that’s the way the media works, in line with the well-known dictum, ‘If it bleeds, it leads’.

Regeneration depends on the extent of the damage done and the subsequent redevelopment necessary. Six provinces were affected. Amongst them, Trang, Satun and Ranong have seen nominal damage and are fully operational. Meanwhile, the debris and mess in the affected areas of Phuket and Krabi have been cleared and most of them are operational. Most hotels and accommodation facilities are also fully operational. Phang Nga however was the hardest hit province and has suffered some serious structural damage especially in Khao Lak. We’re estimating it will take at least a year to restore the province. Similarly, that is the case with Phi Phi Don Island in the Phi Phi group of islands.

In terms of rebuilding, the crisis has presented a unique opportunity for the Thai tourism industry to embark on systematic and integrated tourism redevelopment of the affected areas. The government has pledged that all the post-tsunami development and reconstruction will be done in a sustainable manner. There will be new zoning laws put in place to ensure that impact of development on the environment is minimal. We are hoping that this practice will also be used in future development all over the country and not just in the affected areas.

Indeed, the tsunami managed to do some good as well. Nature has undergone a cleansing process and the water quality in the affected areas has improved considerably resembling what it used to be like 20 years ago when development was at a low.

TAT has been entrusted with overseeing the development of the Patong Seaboard Redevelopment Master Plan which is the government's proposal to bring ‘system and order’ to the Patong beachfront. The focus of the plan will be on ensuring that the design and development of natural landscapes and physical infrastructures have sufficient strength to withstand natural forces. Equal consideration will be given to the conservation of natural coastal and marine landscapes and resources and environmental integrity.

Affected areas along the coast will be rehabilitated and replanted with indigenous plant species and coastal vegetation that will also act as natural barriers and speed-breakers to waves. Every effort is being made to ensure that man-made structures complement and blend into natural surroundings.

And similarly yes, we are encouraging and supporting the operators to also do the same.

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Yvette Tee, Communications Manager, Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts.

Banyan Tree Phuket, Banyan Tree Maldives Vabbinfaru and Angsana Maldives Ihuru were very fortunate to have escaped any serious damage. When the Tsunami struck, the Sands Restaurant at Banyan Tree Phuket was damaged but was repaired within a few days.

The jetty at Banyan Tree Maldives was also damaged but repaired within 24 hours, whilst at Angsana Maldives Ihuru only some rooms were flooded and these were cleared up very quickly. There were no casualties at any of our resorts.

In early January, Banyan Tree Group set up an Asian Tsunami Recovery Fund to assist recovery and help rebuild livelihoods in affected areas. The fund will function as a channel for the company, its staff, guests, business partners and well-wishers who would like to offer direct assistance to communities in Indonesia, the Maldives, Phuket and Sri Lanka. It will be managed by the Banyan Tree Group's organisational network and distributed to affected people through local community organisations.

At the same time, from January to March 2005, the Green Imperative Fund (GIF), which supports Banyan Tree Group's ongoing environmental conservation and community development efforts, will be re-channelled to the Asian Tsunami Recovery Fund. The GIF (which asks Banyan Tree and Angsana resort guests for a US$1 contribution for each night they stay) will now request an additional US$1 donation to help boost the Tsunami Recovery Fund.

Finally, we very recently entered a partnership with the United National Development Programme (UNDP) on a joint recovery effort in the Maldives. The unique private sector/NGO co-operation shows the green light for Banyan Tree Group and UNDP to begin work for the reconstruction of homes and buildings in Naalaafushi, an inhabited island in the Soth Male Atoll of Meemu.

Like other resorts in Phuket, Banyan Tree Phuket experienced some cancellations but bookings have been increasing for February and March. We are very pleased that the resort was full during the Lunar New Year period.

With regards to attracting more visitors back to Banyan Tree Phuket, we are offering an attracting "Return to Phuket" package for guests. We have also advertised in selected key publications worldwide, informing the public that Banyan Tree will pledge 10 percent of proceeds to the fund with every stay.

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Naphalai Areesorn, President, Thai Spa Association.

Only one member of our association was seriously affected by the Tsunami, the Khao Lak Bamboo Resort and Spa. The other spas in those areas very fortunately escaped serious damage.

As far as the Association is concerned, we have tried to assist by matching therapists out of work with spas able or looking to take on staff elsewhere, as well as by making cash donations. We are also asking for spas to prepare special packages which we can sell at very competitive rates via travel agent associations.

Most of the damage has now been repaired and many places are physically back to normal. However, business is very slow to return and this is what is even more destructive than the Tsunami itself.

The government and specifically the Tourism Authority of Thailand are working hard to rebuild confidence and bring back tourists, and we can only hope the results will be seen as soon as possible.

Thai Airways International as well as private businesses are chipping in by working with tourism representatives to attract tourists with special packages, and facilitating trips for the media, travel agents and road shows.

As to how long I think it will take for the south to recover, I am an optimist and given the resilience of the Thai tourism industry, I think it should take much shorter than expected. With Chinese New Year and the approaching Easter/Spring break, bookings from overseas are now picking up, and then in April it will be the period for local holidays. There are lots of very attractive deals to the south and this will help to direct traffic there.

Unfortunately we then get into the low season, which is not going to help the industry too much. But I expect lots of special packages to get locals to travel there until the start of the next high season in August/September, by which time I am sure things will be almost back to normal. By the way, check out this website for more info on the situation down south: www.phuket.com.

*

Raymond Hall, Chief Marketing Officer & James Sullivan-Tailyour, Chief Sales Officer, Six Senses Resorts & Spas.

Three of the Six Senses properties were in the effected regions: Soneva Fushi and Soneva Gili Resorts in the Maldives, and Evason Phuket Resort in Thailand. All have Six Senses Spas.

Thankfully, there was no loss of life or serious injuries. Soneva Fushi and Evason Phuket were virtually untouched and remain fully operational.

Evason Phuket had to install a pontoon jetty on December 28, to re-establish access to its popular private beach on Bon Island. As a result of this low period, the Sundeck Wing of Evason rooms is being converted and upgraded to 16 Duplex Suites, all with private pools.

Soneva Fushi business is rebounding strongly and is forecasting in excess of 80 percent occupancy for February. During January, work on the new private Spa Suits was completed, and we unveiled the new Jungle Reserve, which also features a private massage pavilion and the Maldives' first tree-house.

Soneva Gili – the first all-over-water resort in the Maldives – sustained some light structural damage and was evacuated following the Tsunami. It will re-open on May 1. This downtime is being used to complete the Private Reserve, a 1,400 square metre, presidential-style, over-water complex, featuring its own Spa Suite and gym.

No, there was no warning about what was to happen and the analogy of a bath overflowing has been rather aptly used: the hardest part was wondering when everything would stop – at waist level or just keep on going? The effects did vary. Some hotels were better off than ours, some worse. In our Maldives properties, this often depended on the location of the reef and the position of surrounding islands.

Many of the local islands were affected much more seriously than the tourist resorts. There is some serious work to be done to get people back on their feet. The emergency relief organisations are working hard but there will still be much to do in the long term. This is one of the primary reasons that The Soneva Resorts has set up a relief fund, with at least 60 percent of the funds being reserved for longer-term projects.

The tourism boards are all working hard to ensure that a balanced view gets across. One of the key points they have all tried highlight is that travelling (to Thailand and the Maldives particularly) is the best thing that people can do. If not, then this natural disaster will turn into an economic crisis.

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Hajo von Keller, Managing Director, Mangosteen Resort and Spa, Phuket, Thailand.

Like over 90 percent of resorts in Phuket (not Khao Lak!), The Mangosteen has not been affected at all. We were lucky, no guest was on the beach at the time.

All of us have lost some friends, of course, everybody has a story. But we had no problems within our families or families of staff.

The priorities now are to rescue jobs and fill up the resort with new guests as fast as possible. Currently, like most businesses we are trying to keep our staff and just reduce their income temporarily. But we can’t survive many months like this and need new guests within one or two months only.

There are the first signs that travellers are coming back soon. But bookings are now 10 percent of expected levels. The island is empty. The biggest danger is that shops that have been repaired and re-opened must close again because they have no customers.

The situation has been completely exaggerated in the media. Phuket was very lucky: there was some damage on the beach-front road in Patong and a lot of damage in Kamala. Other beaches were largely unaffected and already by January 4 everything was quite normal here. The main damage is the loss of work. Khao Lak indeed has been almost completely destroyed and hotels can’t rebuild quickly. This is a very different story.

During the first two weeks after the disaster we went out every day to “catch” journalists and TV teams, to explain them what horrible mistake they did reporting from Phuket. There was a lot of repetition of gossip. People imagined dead bodies floating in the water, etc. It was just nonsense. Some quickly understood; some invited me for interviews. One German station (ARD) even produced a small movie with the title “We have been sent to hell but arrived in paradise!” I also sent out thousands of e-mails to all our contacts. The best thing is to show pictures: for example the ones on www.phuket-photos.com. It's absolutely the best way to see how beautiful Phuket still is!

Of course, a warning system for the future would be a good thing. With such a system, damage would have been “buildings only”.

*

Jesper Hougaard, Managing Director, Serena Spa Pvt Ltd.

Serena Spa operates spas in the Maldives, Sri Lanka and India. We felt the tremendous devastation of the Tsunami, in particular in Sri Lanka, where two of our spas were hit and more or less destroyed. Only the main structures and the roofs are still there: all equipment, furniture and products were either smashed to pieces or washed out unto the sea. Fortunately, no guests were in the spas at the time and our spa personnel were not seriously hurt, apart from the shock.

In Maldives the Tsunami seemed to have lost some of its power. Although some 20 resort islands were damaged, most of them are already repaired. The remaining resort islands only had some wet mattresses and temporary power loss. In fact, the damage was so slight that most guests did not want to leave, despite tour operators offering special repatriation flights.

However, in both the Maldives and Sri Lanka the major damage was suffered by the local population: fishermen and small shopkeepers. These are the ones needing support. In the Maldives the majority of the economy is hinged on tourism, so the best help is to get the tourism industry back on track as soon as possible. This industry – like no other – distributes money through the economy with speed, efficiency and in a very direct fashion. If the waiter earns a salary, his family can purchase from the grocery shop and buy a fish from the fisherman.

For Serena Spa the most direct effect was the loss of four spa operations due to direct damage of the spa facilities. Together with our resort partners the repairs have already started and most will be back on track in a matter of months.

Since our main asset is people, we have retained all our spa therapists: some have been sent on paid vacation, some are undergoing training, but all are still on our payroll.

We are fortunate that our partners are as eager as we are to put this disaster behind us and look towards the future with determination to continue to offer a unique spa experience.

Still, the gravest effect of the Tsunami is that tourist arrivals have dropped dramatically – by almost 80 percent in January. The good news is that the forecasts for February and March are very encouraging, perhaps not as good as usual, but very close.

In the short term Serena Spa is expanding its operations to new areas: in April we are opening a new spa at the Red Sea in Egypt – a very special spa with 24 treatment rooms, low calorie vegetarian restaurant and a lot of special features and spa activities.

In Sri Lanka we are opening a 16,000 square foot spa in the historic Galle Face Hotel, Colombo in May and in India we have just introduced an upscale Decléor Aroma Care Institute in Bangalore and plan to open another few this year, as well as Serena Spa operations at the luxurious Surya Samudra near Trivandrum in South India.

In the long term the Tsunami will not have any effect on our operations. What is important right now is to ensure that the public gets the right picture of the situation. There is no denying that the Tsunami effects can still be seen on the south coast of Sri Lanka, but thanks to a concerted effort by the government and in particular the tourism industry, there is tremendous progress in the cleaning and re-housing of the families that were directly hit.

The main immediate goal is to get the visitors back and for governments and the industry to work hand-in-hand to ensure that the tourists are coming back to visit these uniquely beautiful countries.

*

Andrew Jones, Guardian, Sanctuary Resorts.

We have two properties in Thailand: The Racha resort on Racha Island, which is 35 minutes by speedboat south of Phuket, and La Flora, in Khao Lak, 50 minutes north of Phuket airport.

The Racha was hit by the Tsunami and suffered some structural damage, mainly to the public areas such as the reception, coffee shop, lounge bar, beach restaurant and dive centre. Being on high ground most of the villas were not affected by the waves. There was no loss of life and no major casualties at the resort.

Unfortunately La Flora being right on the beach took a direct hit from the Tsunami, and suffered not only structural damage, but also we lost some lives. Fourteen of our staff and at least six guests perished. Some guests are still missing.

One of the main effects was on the families of the staff we lost in Khao Lak. We are taking steps to look after them now. For example the General Manager, Mark Heather, has arranged a scholarship for the son of the Food and Beverage Manager who perished. We have agreed with the owners of the Thai properties that although closed, the staff will be kept on during the reconstruction period.

For now, both resorts are closed. Rebuilding of both properties is being undertaken. It is estimated that the resorts will re-open in six to eight months time, although La Flora may take a little longer – twelve beach villas were washed away, the water reached to the top of the second floor of both three-storey main buildings, and the Spa and wellness area was also washed away. As a lot of damage was sustained, part of the challenge will be to find materials and workmen to complete the renovations in a timely manner.

Although our resorts are closed, we are encouraging tourists to return to the Thailand, and particularly the Phuket area, as local people still need to earn a living and support their families. Many of the areas around Phuket were not touched by the Tsunami and you would never know that it had hit the area.

I believe that Thailand will recover quite quickly: the same beautiful scenery is still there, the people are as friendly and hospitable as ever, and it is still a great place to refresh and rejuvenate in a variety of different ways and environments. These people and the communities need our support more than ever now to keep the economy buoyant. It would worsen the situation if tourists stayed away. It is only by continuing to promote tourism that we can support the survivors and their communities.

Although we will learn from this tragedy, more than ever we see that many communities in Asia need responsible and sustainable tourism projects in order to support themselves. Our concept is not based on beach resorts, so a number of our properties will be located in areas away from the ocean anyway.

Although it is a very sad situation and we grieve for the people who lost their lives, the outpouring of support and offers of financial assistance since the tragic even – from guests of the resorts, previous guests, friends and other supporters of our company Mission – has been heartwarming.

Due to these offerings, we are in the process of setting up a Charitable Foundation initially for the children of the staff members who lost their lives, particularly in the devastation in Khao Lak. As funds permit, facilities will be provided for vocational training (tourism-related courses) for young people in the communities where we operate or there is a need.

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Sarita Hegde Roy, Director of Public Relations, Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces.

There have been no casualties or injuries to guests or staff at any of the Taj Hotels in the affected areas, particularly in the Maldives and Sri Lanka. Our operations at Taj Fisherman's Cove in Chennai, the three Taj hotels in Sri Lanka and Taj Coral Reef in Maldives are functioning normally.

In an effort to enable restoration of all facilities to Taj standards, we will be temporarily suspending operations at Taj Exotica Resort & Spa, Maldives until Fall 2005. As a precautionary measure, we offered alternate transport to our guests who wanted to reach Chennai, India. We chartered an aircraft in Male to bring back guests and our staff. At Chennai, we made arrangements to assist guests for their onward journeys.

All other Taj hotels across India are unaffected and are functioning with business as usual.

We are deeply saddened by the devastation caused due to the Tsunami across South and South East Asia, including Tamil Nadu and parts of coastal south-east India. We continue to extend our full support to local authorities.

This story first appeared in Spa Business © 2005.




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