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Damage Assessments Slow to Come After Earthquake, Tidal Waves

Economists say it is too soon to assess how badly the Asian economies have been damaged by the devastating earthquake and tidal waves that claimed at least 23,000 lives. Stock prices in Asia fell as shocked investors reacted to the disaster.

With all efforts focused on rescuing victims and treating the injured, governments as yet have had little time to assess just how badly Sunday's earthquake and tidal waves have battered their economies.

At the Asian Development Bank, a nonprofit lending institution based in Manila, a spokesman said Monday it would be days before economic assessments would be done. Instead, Ian Gill says, the focus is on helping the recovery.

"We usually provide emergency rehabilitation assistance in the case of such disasters. We've done several of these in the past," he said. "What we can say is we're expected to provide this again."

ADB officials will meet Tuesday, Mr. Gill says, to draft an aid plan.

John Koldowski, the spokesman for the Pacific Asia Travel Association, or PATA, says there is no doubt the travel industry will be hit hard. But, he said, the damage will be uneven. In large countries, such as India, the overall effect will be modest, because only a small part of the country was hit by tidal waves, and tourist destinations elsewhere are safe.

On the other hand, the Maldives, a tiny nation in the India Ocean made up of almost 1,200 low-lying islands, may suffer greatly from flooding. The bulk of the country's economy is based on tourism.

Mr. Koldowski says that so far, outsiders have not been able to contact most of the country's beach resorts to determine the damage.

Overall, he says, the industry is likely to recover within a relatively short time.

"We believe, and we've seen in the past, that no matter what the tragedy, there is or there tends to be a positive rebound over time. To some degree that is controlled and constrained by the speed with which the normal functioning plant can get back and running," said Mr. Koldowski.

Mr. Koldowski says that six to eight percent of Thailand's economy is based on tourism, and the island of Phuket, one of the worst hit places, is almost entirely dependent on the travel trade. Hundreds of shops, hotels and restaurants were destroyed there, in the middle of the peak season. That means Thailand's tourist industry income may fall somewhat in the coming months.

Sunday's earthquake may have temporarily halted the recent boom the Asian travel business had seen. Airline traffic and hotel sales soared as Asia recovered from 2003, when travel plunged because of the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, the start of the Iraq war and fears of terrorism.

Several Asian stock indexes lost ground on Monday in response to the disaster. Travel industry shares were among those that fell the most, some airlines and hotel companies in Singapore and Thailand saw their shares fall one percent or more.

The full effect of the disaster will not be felt in Asian stock markets until Tuesday, however, as three major markets, Singapore, Hong Kong and Australia, were closed Monday for a holiday.

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