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On idyllic Philippine island, typhoon hints at tourism paradise lost

Typhoon Haiyan destroyed homes.
Villagers walk past Typhoon Haiyan destroyed homes and coconut palms near the tourist beach on Bantayan island, Cebu November 14, 2013.Reuters

SANTA FE, Philippines - On one side, the Anika Island Resort faces a glittering stretch of azure sea. On the other three, it faces the remains of homes and coconut palms minced by wind into the white sand.

The hotel is the only one of 32 to escape Typhoon Haiyan unscathed enough to stay running in Santa Fe, an idyllic tourist town on Bantayan island flattened by one of the world's biggest storms.

The destruction here reflects the damage to the tourism industry in many typhoon-hit parts of the Philippines since the category-5 super typhoon struck on Friday. Hundreds of tourists have been stranded for days by the storm, which has killed thousands of people and leveled the coastal city of Tacloban

The scale of the storm and its carnage have made for a week of international headlines, frightening away tourists across the central Philippines and triggering mass cancellations at resorts, though the record-breaking typhoon struck only six of the country's 7,107 islands.

Resorts at major destinations such as Boracay, Palawan, Cebu and Bohol, however, have seen cancellation rates of 30 to 40 percent since the storm hit, said Cesar Cruz, president of the Philippine Tour Operators Association in Manila.

"The cancellations are still coming in," he said
Just three days ago, more than 400 tourists from 26 countries were stranded at Palawan alone, turning the scuba-diving center with its dozens of gorgeous islands into a terrifying travel nightmare. Many were evacuated.

Anika's owner, Nelson Yuvallos, attributes the survival of his hotel to divine intervention, after he "prayed like Moses" that winds of nearly 315 km per hour (195 miles per hour) would part around it. Across Santa Fe, local officials say 95 percent of buildings were severely damaged.

"Tourism is very important here. It's the only income," Yuvallos said. About 4,000 tourists come to the island, just off the northern tip of Cebu, in a regular month, peaking to 10,000 during the northern winter, he said.

In some ways, local tourism has been lucky. The ferries that run to the mainland were back in operation within two days of the storm, taking the remaining weary tourists with them.

"It's like people are thinking all the Philippines is gone. If you look at the international media that is the impression you get," Philippine Tourism Secretary Ramon Jimenez told Reuters. "But tourists who were meant for one place have been diverted to another and most of this has been successful."

Bringing them back, however, will be a challenge.

A squeeze on tourism
Hotel owners have agreed to try to rebuild by December. Too much of a delay, and tourists will pick another palm-fringed paradise - one where twisted fallen powerlines have not been repurposed for drying the clothes of people living in the open.

The mayor, Jose Titing Esgana, is less optimistic. "Rebuilding by December is a very high expectation," he said.

Esgana said tourism may only be able to recover in time for Easter, when the island famously fills up with Catholic tourists who come to feast on pork, thanks to a belief that the island was granted papal license in the 19th century to eat red meat on Good Friday. In the meantime, up to 400 people will be out of work.

Tourism is a growing business in the Philippines, where the number of visitors climbed to 4.3 million last year from 3.9 million the year before. It generates about 5.9 percent of the fast-growing $250 billion economy.

The government has set an ambitious target to more than double tourist arrivals in the next three years to 10 million. Typhoon Haiyan undoubtedly makes that harder.

"It might temper the trajectory a little bit," said Jun Neri, an economist at the Bank of the Philippine Islands. "But it should be able to bounce back in the latter part of the first half of next year."

He expects some of the billions of dollars in reconstruction that awaits the Philippines to offset tourism losses. German-based CEDIM Forensic Disaster Analysis has estimated the typhoon could cost the country as much as $19 billion in reconstruction.

"Mercy for my children"
In Sante Fe, almost all the fishing boats have been destroyed and the chickens - which supply the whole province with eggs - are being killed to feed locals.

Food aid is trickling through to the people, but so far no shelter or reconstruction material has arrived for more than 6,400 displaced families. The destruction is so complete that "the structure is totally zero", Esgana said. "There is nothing to reconstruct with."

Arsolin Ofiasa is trying to do just that. The small shack where he lives with his pregnant wife and five of his seven children was almost completely flattened on Friday, saved only by a sturdy wooden cabinet.

Ofiasa is now salvaging the nails from wrecked planks from his house in the hope of using them again to hammer a firmer structure into place.

"All I want is to be able rebuild a house and live decently, and I hope for mercy for my children."