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Madeira trying to restart tourism business

JEFFREY T. LEWIS  Mar 01, 2010

A week after torrential rains and mudslides killed 42 people and left 17 missing on Madeira, government officials are trying to restart the tourism business that is vital to the Atlantic island's economy.

It won't be easy. Tourism marketing after a natural disaster is problematic because officials need to be careful not to appear insensitive toward the victims while also letting potential visitors know that it is safe to come.

Cleanup crews and local utilities have made rapid progress in removing mud and debris from the streets of Funchal, the capital, and restoring water, power and telecommunications services. Work continues in the worst-affected areas of Funchal, where some underground parking lots that had been flooded are still being drained. Other parts of the island that were hit harder, such as the town of Ribeira Brava, will require more extensive cleanup and reconstruction efforts.

Tourism represents 20% of the economy of this Portuguese autonomous region, located more than 600 miles west of the European mainland. It employs 7,000 people in the hotel sector alone, out of a total population of 245,000. Most of the tourists come from Britain, Germany and Portugal, according to official figures.

"People have seen so much on television about this disaster that it might discourage them from going," says Angelo Rossini, a research analyst for London-based Euromonitor. At the same time, he says, "respect for the dead can also be an issue. It might be a problem to get people to go for sun and vacation so soon after the tragedy."

Conceicao Estudante, the regional government's secretary-general for tourism and transport, said last week that the government had started reconstruction efforts. Local hotel operators, travel agents and tour operators are contacting tourists who had reservations, as well as potential new visitors.

The images of destruction have led to hundreds of cancellations at island hotels, said Ricardo Rodrigues, manager of the Funchal Design hotel, in the center of the capital, and of another hotel in the hills behind the city.

"There should be a time of mourning, but everyone realizes that life has to go on," he said.

Tourists who were in Madeira during the storm have applauded the government's response to the disaster.

Joachim Becker, a 60-year-old environmental-health and medicine worker from Essen, Germany, said he and his wife rode out the storm in a small villa outside the capital. There was mud everywhere, including in the pool, but they say the storm won't stop them from returning.

"The local government did a very good job of cleaning up," Mr. Becker said. "We'll be back next year, for sure."

Madeira trying to restart tourism business
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