World of travel shows resilience once again

Channel NewsAsia has issued an amazingly optimistic report about how tourism outlets hit by the deadly tsunami are likely to recover in as little as three months.

The world remains vulnerable and resilient, forgetful and hopeful.

The traveler, both wary and adventurous, has been tested in other ways since the millennium began. The sucker punch of 9/11 terrorism, the spread of SARS and the war in Iraq all have threatened international tourism but not killed it.

In 2004, the World Travel & Tourism Council found India to be the second fastest-growing travel/tourism economy in the world (behind Montenegro, part of the former Yugoslavia). Today the nation reels from the tsunami’s hideous devastation, and is a place to learn about emergency assistance as well as vacation planning.

Four of the WTTC’s top 10 growth areas are in southeast Asia (add China, Laos and Vietnam). The council, which exists to raise awareness about “the world’s largest generator of wealth and jobs,” will have its fifth annual global summit in New Delhi this spring.

India and Malaysia were the only two Asian nations at Tucson’s recent Travel Media Showcase, a forum for travel education and promotion. That suggests tourism is a priority and growth industry in these exotic and beautiful places, which see themselves this way:

“There is a Spiritual Source in India which is at this time exerting a powerful influence globally.”

“Malaysia, being politically stable with a strong economy, is a safe country to visit.”

For these and many other Third World countries, tourism has become an economic savior. In southeast Asia, the industry accounts for 19 million jobs, which is more than 8 percent of total employment.

Take that away, and struggling populations – particularly in stunning but isolated areas – quickly can lose their livable wages, their motivation, their dreams for self-sufficiency.

Travelers lose, too, if poor access and questionable security – because of manmade or natural forces – drown the desire to better understand and empathize with cultures that are a world away from their own.

Everybody loses when a country limps along on public assistance and pity instead of being empowered by economic independence, however meager.

One horrific tsunami, sadly, is merely one example of how volatile the travel industry can become, and how quickly nirvana can disappear.

USA Today says the aftermath of last September’s hurricanes still can be felt and seen in both Jamaica and the Dominican Republic.

Ivan filled Negril’s marquee 7-Mile Beach with debris and destroyed the legendary Rick’s Café, where tourists dive from a cliff, sunrise to sunset. The Jamaican beach is getting back to normal; the café is being rebuilt.

What I can’t get a handle on is how more remote areas – like Mayfield Falls, in the Dolphin Head Mountains – have fared. Pools of warm mineral water, cascading waterfalls and lush vegetation are one part of what I remember from a visit there last spring.

What haunts me is the friendly face of our young guide, Jermaine, who grew up in these hills. His childhood playground is a bumpy, windy, one-hour ride from Negril – off of an edge-of-cliff, dirt road that sometimes requires one vehicle to back up so another can pass in the opposite direction. You don’t approach a curve without sounding a trio of taps on the horn.

En route, many Jamaicans sit outside of their patchwork shacks, some with electricity but no plumbing, watching the rich tourists ride by.

This was when the country’s unemployment rate was 38 percent. One of four people who had jobs worked in the tourism industry, and Jermaine was one of them.

When I met him, he was joyful, he was at home and he was eager to share his secret spots – an underwater cave, pockets of air between rocks and pummeling water – with foreigners who would get to know him for just an afternoon.

Jermaine and Lance, lifelong friends, collected our cameras and produced them whenever we asked. This was a water walk. The smooth stones were not as slippery as they looked, but the water also was not as clear as it first appeared.

Silt muddied the view as one hesitant step followed another. It was easy to bump into a rock that required a step up, or to slip a foot deeper as an underwater pathway ended abruptly.

Jermaine was carefree as he splashed ahead and teased. “Come this way,” he said, laughing easily. “This way is rockier,” he pointed out. “This is deeper.” “This is not so bad.” His companion was quieter, but with a sturdy grip to boost and lead the timid along.

A dozen of us stumbled, plodded and gawked – at the mercy of these two strangers – for a little more than an hour. They were entertaining, and they were confident, until we were safely returned to our point of departure.

It was time for tips, and our guides knew some of us instead would opt to spend money on a cold Red Stripe. Their eyes turned shy, humble, anxious.

For the tourists, it was just another sunny day of vacation. For Jermaine and Lance, it was a matter of work and survival.

A couple of years earlier, in the Dominican Republic, we spent a day away from the idyllic setting of the Punta Cana coast, to take a local culture tour. We rode to sugar cane fields, to a witch doctor’s house, to the one-room home of an old woman who served us hot Jamaican coffee. We saw staged cock fights, donkeys and cattle grazing in tiny yards, shoddy ballparks that might produce the next Sammy Sosa.

Beautiful foothills led to poor towns that were littered with garbage. Groups of children begged for candy and money; one snatched a pocketbook when a kind but naïve tourist tried to comply.

“If you have something to give them, give it to me,” advised our guide, who would distribute the wealth to the clamoring youngsters. When our thick-tired vehicle rolled away, the children ran behind it.

Hurricane Jeanne tore through the Dominican Republic, but the country’s extravagant, all-inclusive resorts are back in operation because their corporate owners can afford it.

For the locals, it remains a challenge of getting up to speed, not regaining it.