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Tsunami and the tourist industry

By Minnie Bruce Pratt

The US media admit that Secretary of State Colin Powell’s visit to Thailand is designed to prop up the hard-hit tourist industry there. The catastrophic Dec. 26 tsunami hit the beaches of Sri Lanka and Thailand and the islands of the Maldives at the height of tourist season.

While the tourist industry brings a lot of money into these countries, it doesn’t enrich the workers and farmers. Instead it aggravates class divisions and makes the capitalists there even more appendages of foreign capital.

In covering the tragedy, US news media highlighted the dramatic stories and deaths of Australian, European, and US tourists in the area. Of the six New York Post photo cover stories on the tragedy, three featured white tourists. In the days immediately following the tsunami, a top priority of the authorities was to evacuate the surviving tourists.

The heaviest losses, however, were not in tourist areas but in the coastal villages of Indonesia, which were devastated by the earthquake as well as the tsunami.

United Nations emergency relief coordinator Jan Egeland asserted, We will never, ever have the absolute, definite figure because there are many nameless fishermen and villages that have just gone. (The Australian)

Also unnamed in US news reports are the women and men whose labour kept the luxurious beach-side resorts running. At Sofitel Magic Lagoon in Khao Lak, near Phuket, Thailand, one-third of the 320 person staff were still missing a week after the calamity. And an estimated 10,000 people have lost their jobs in the Thai resort industry as a result of the tsunami. (Asian Labour News) Rooms at the Magic Lagoon cost between $350 and $600 a night. An average monthly salary for a Thai hotel worker is about $130. More than 10 million tourists visit Thailand in a year, 4 million in the Phuket area alone. (Reference)

The international sex-trade industry preys on impoverished people of the area, mostly women and children. They are marketed to Western tourists, primarily men, as destinations for travel tours. The profits made from this human suffering are as yet incalculable. (Julia Davidson, Sex Tourists in Thailand)

Tidal wave of super-exploitation

Transnational travel industry giants like Le Meridien, Holiday Inn and Accor make extravagant profits through the super-exploitation of workers in these resorts.

Le Meridien, created by Air France in 1972, subsequently merged with corporations from England and Japan. It now has major financing from US-based Lehman Brothers. Giant Accor, which runs the Magic Lagoon, has hotels in 140 countries, including Motel 6 and Red Roof Inns in the United States.

Joining these worldwide corporations in the rush to wring profit from Asian workers is the World Bank, through its affiliate, the International Finance Corp. The IFC, which finances private corporations expanding into the developing world, has specifically targeted tourism as an area for exploitation. In 2002 the IFC loaned $17 million to private companies in the Maldives to build resort areas. Before the tsunami, tourism generated 33 percent of the Maldives’ GDP, and its typically low-paying service work made up 30 percent of local employment.(IFC Reference)

In its own words, The IFC finances private sector investments in the developing world, mobilizes capital in the international financial markets, helps clients improve social and environmental sustainability, and provides technical assistance and advice to governments and businesses.

The mission statement further elaborates: We are committed to working on the frontiers of private investment, helping bring commercial disciplines and entrepreneurial dynamism to new areas of the economy.

In plain words, the IFC, the World Bank and the transnational corporations that are their partners are dedicated to finding any way possible to make money off theworking and oppressed people of the world, including the people who once lived in the countryside, villages and towns now devastated by the tsunami.

In August 2003, management at the Diamond Cliff Resort and Spa in Phuket blasted workers with mass layoffs for attempting to unionize, and kept them from getting jobs at other resorts. The workers, without income and homeless, refused to settle with the company, and demanded their jobs and reinstatement with fair wages. This is the spirit of the workers hit so hard by the tsunami of the ocean, the spirit of their fight against the tidal wave of capitalism.

Minnie Bruce Pratt

(Copyright Workers World Service)