What coastal tourism accommodation providers can learn from Japan’s earthquake and tsunami

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(eTN) – At the very moment Japan was experiencing the most powerful earthquake in its modern history and tsunamis were inundating large swathes of the NE coast of Honshu, I was the final speaker addre

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(eTN) – At the very moment Japan was experiencing the most powerful earthquake in its modern history and tsunamis were inundating large swathes of the NE coast of Honshu, I was the final speaker addressing a local government tourism conference in Sydney and warning the 120 delegates, including 30 mayors, about the importance of enacting zoning and building regulations especially for tourism infrastructure, which would minimize exposure to sea surges, storms, river flooding, and tsunamis. This chilling coincidence was brought home to me as I drove away from the conference and heard on my car radio the first reports of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami.

Japan is arguably the most earthquake resistant country on Earth. The country’s frequent exposure to earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis has forced the Japanese to develop a high level of awareness on the subject of tectonic forces. Japan’s building codes for all infrastructures are the strictest in the world. Yet despite this most rigorous preparation, the sheer intensity of an 8.9 earthquake and the massive tsunami it released has caused immense destruction on Japan’s eastern seaboard.

I have nothing to add to the awesome scenes of nature’s fury inflicted on Japan and depicted by the global media and can only pray that the death and destruction wrought upon the Japanese people is far less than feared.

However, Japan’s catastrophic tsunami should finally shock into action the legions of coastal hoteliers, resort owners, and the government authorities which determine building and zoning codes in the pleasure periphery globally. It is time to stop building and permitting the building of death traps. The arguments in favor of developing and constructing resorts are familiar. The market demands on-the-water accommodation so developers build them. Perhaps for weeks, months, years, and even decades, resort rooms next to and even over the water, host happy holiday makers until… On December 26, 2004 the Indian Ocean tsunami resulted in the death of over 5,000 tourists on the Andaman Sea coast in Thailand alone.

The local authorities in Phuket did make some important changes to building and zoning regulations as they applied to hotels and resorts to minimize exposure to future sea surges. Firstly, the building of new resorts in Phuket are required to be located on high ground. Secondly, existing multi-story resorts can only locate accommodation from the first floor.

In September 2009, tourists staying in on-sea resorts and tourist fales were among the 140 killed in the tsunami, which hit Upolu. Many of the damaged tourism structures have been re-built on the same extremely vulnerable sites on which they were inundated, because there is no government regulation to stop them.

Are seaside resorts and hoteliers, and the government authorities which approve their developments, obsessed only with chasing money? It appears they would rather risk the lives of their guests and locals who work in these resorts than consider siting their hotels and resorts on safer ground, which can still afford a sea or an ocean view and access to the sea free of the risk of inundation.

As a case in point, the fale accommodation at Lalomanu beach, Samoa, after being destroyed during the 2009 tsunami, was relocated inland and up high, bringing tourists to this most popular beach only during the day.

It is imperative for tourism officials, governments, and the hotel and resort industry to take an uncompromising stand on the issue of hotel and resort location and building regulations. If the tourist market is not prepared to recognize the very real risk of on-beach accommodation then this sort of accommodation should be treated like cigarettes. Users are warned and providers are taxed to the hilt.

If both tourists and coastal accommodation operators still don’t get the message, then perhaps tourists who choose to stay in risky locations should be denied travel insurance coverage. These proposals are extreme, but they are designed to make the key point that the paramount responsibility of the tourism industry is to enable the industry and its customers to fulfil their dreams IN SAFETY.

Dr. David Beirman is a Senior Lecturer in tourism at the University of Technology-Sydney.

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Editor in chief is Linda Hohnholz.