Be safe not sorry
BANGKOK, 12 April 2012: Critics are coming out of the woodwork to lambast the government on its response to yesterday’s tsunami threat.
Travel industry leaders are bemoaning the impact on tourism confidence and playing the doleful tune that thousands of tourists will be too scared to visit Thailand’s west coast beaches.
It’s hog wash. None of these so-called tourism leaders consider the possible consequences if the government had backed off and a tsunami had indeed hit Phuket yesterday evening. There are thousands of named and unnamed graves to illustrate what happens when there is neither a warning or evacuation order.
This was a natural disaster threat and there was plenty of evidence to indicate by the size and location of the earthquake that this was not a time to take risks. The government responded in an appropriate manner. Give credit where it is due.
Government agencies have learned a few lessons from the 2004 tsunami and for those who bothered to check the MCOT TV channels, updates were coming through with a reasonable English translation. Of course, the English was poor, hesitant in delivery, indicating the MCOT should invest in hiring professionals for such an important task, but for once a government channel was trying to communicate.
There was a distinct improvement in how agencies managed the situation and they should not criticised by the tourism industry for eroding business confidence.
If Thailand’s confidence rating is low it is more to do with the tourism industry’s lack of investment in communications or its commitment to delivering a quality product for consumers.
The travel industry in Asia still relies on buddy-business, out-of-touch trade marts and road show that reach out to traditional business pipelines.
There are always hiccups in an emergency. Yesterday, some of the alarm sirens failed. People were not sure whether to go two floors up or head for higher ground some distance from homes and hotel? A lack of direction at hotel level caused panic and fear. Guests were not marshalled by hotel staff who knew what they were doing.
If hotel staff left in a hurry then they were probably heading for their homes to ensure their families and children were safe. That left behind the high-paid expatriates who are paid enough to be responsible for their guests. Were they on duty or on the golf course?
Obviously, hotels should have tsunami emergency teams assigned to mobilise in the case of emergencies to usher guests to the evacuation points. The same teams should supervise mandatory drills and they should work with other hotel teams to ensure the signs and evacuation zones at higher ground are in good shape.
Hotels have to be proactive, join forces and provide the kind of volunteer service that ensure tourists are confident when they visit a resort that they will be looked after whatever the threat, not just when they are paying their inflated bills for accommodation.
How many hotels at popular resorts even bother with a fire drill let alone one for a tsunami? It’s a rare occasion that is conducted without much enthusiasm at a time when all the guests areon the beach. Even international chains are guilty of failure to maintain the kind of drills they would be forced to conduct in a professional manner in Europe or the US.
Having witnessed the 2004 tsunami and the government response to that event, yesterday’s tsunami watch suggested officials had learned a hard lesson and were responding appropriately.
More than seven years ago the 26 December 2004 tsunami killed 5400 tourists and residents on the Andaman coast. Yesterday, Andaman coastal towns and villages escaped, but the threat remains for the entire region.
Resorts have to maintain safety teams and ensure the systems work. The last thing we need is travel industry executives talking about lost business. That would only create hesitancy for the agency officials who are responsible to call a tsunami watch or evacuation. If the data is on the table and it calls for evacuation the officials need to know they can make that decision not ponder over the loss to tourism.
This time we were lucky. Guest checking in at resort needs adequate evacuation information. It should be standard practice and there should never be hesitancy, or the slightest consideration for the commercial impact on tourism.
If the tourism industry wants government agencies to play down evacuations, hesitate until the wave is almost upon the shore then it has lost touch with the basic rule of hospitality – the safety and wellbeing of guests.
So let’s stop the griping about lost business and concentrate on filling the communications gaps and supporting Andaman coastal resorts to respond speedily to save and protect lives rather risk them.