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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tsunami Now Batters Tour Agencies

Aftershocks from last month's devastating tsunami in Southeast Asia have hit the domestic travel industry, endangering the existence of dozens of tour agencies specializing in the region.

Thousands of Russians whose tours to Thailand and Sri Lanka have been canceled are swamping travel bureaus, threatening to go to court if they are not given full refunds.

"Refunds for cancellations to Phuket alone may cost the tour operators $10 million. This would be hard for any industry. But for tourism it would be a catastrophe," Irina Tyurina, spokeswoman for the Russian Tourism Union, or RST, told reporters Thursday.

"If it happens we can expect bankruptcies en masse."

According RST as many as 3,500 tourists bound for Phuket, Thailand's famous resort island, and 650 booked for Sri Lanka, have turned to their travel agents demanding compensation.

Tour packages to these destinations over the New Year holiday averaged $1,600 per person.

The flow of refund applications grew after government representatives, including the head of the Federal Tourist Agency, Vladimir Strzhalkovsky, called for 100 percent refunds, RST said.

"This was interpreted by many as a guide to action. Tour agencies' profitability is 3 to 5 percent at the most. A full refund would kill the companies, which became victims of the tsunami like everyone else," Tyurina said.

Still, a majority of companies focused on Southeast Asia are looking for ways to compensate cancellations through cash payments, vouchers for future trips or tours to alternative destinations, said RST head Sergei Shpilko.

"The major players on the market are unanimous that it is necessary to do everything possible to compensate losses to tourists," Shpilko said at the news conference.

Tour agencies said they are ready to return their premiums and cash refunded by airlines but cannot guarantee reimbursement from hotels.

"Hotel owners only offer compensation in services, not in cash," Shpilko said.

"Tourists are better off settling for alternative destinations such as Goa, Bali, the Seychelles or even Europe," said Tatyana Chuvilkina, deputy general director of Natalie Tours, a market leader. "This way they can get a fuller reimbursement."

Those who choose to turn to the courts are unlikely to receive full compensation, said Georgy Mokhov, general director for Persona Grata legal firm.

"They have the right to demand compensation -- but the question is what prospects they will have. If the hotel does not confirm the refund, the tour agency cannot pay it back," he said.

"We have been made scapegoats in a situation for which we are not to blame," Shpilko said. He said Russian travelers have shown "callousness" in a tragedy that has taken the lives of as many as 220,000 people.

"After the cancellations, some tourists just turned up and said 'Fork over the money!'" said Natalie Tours' Chuvilkina.

In the immediate aftermath of the disasters, some travelers who had booked trips seemed determined to follow through with their plans.

"Many people turned out thick-skinned and behaved like in the jungle. The number of cancellations in the first days did not exceed 10 percent," said Dmitry Yanin, head of the Confederation of Consumer Rights Associations.

Yanin said his organization will not support suits for 100 percent refunds, given the extraordinary circumstances of the disaster.

The Russian tour industry has now given up its expectation that travel to Thailand would grow 30 percent in 2004. The year before, 90,000 Russians flew to Thailand.

RST's Tyurina said that although the stricken island of Phuket represented only 20 percent of Thailand-bound travel, demand for flights to the region has dropped precipitously.

Some travelers are even afraid to visit destinations untouched by the tidal waves, such as Goa or Bali, Tyurina said.

On Wednesday, Aeroflot said it was cutting the number of regularly scheduled flights to Thailand because of a decrease in demand.

Shpilko said it is difficult to estimate when tourist flows to Thailand will resume. But given the pace of reconstruction in Phuket, he said he expects things to look up as early as next month.

The Russian tourism industry is not alone in struggling with the aftermath of the tsunami. But more established operators in other countries may have been in a better position to meet customer demands.

"Most of our clients -- nearly 80 percent -- took up our offer for alternatives destinations. Those who did not got all their money back," Anja Braun, a spokeswoman for German package tour giant TUI, said by phone from Hanover.