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Thailand Tourism, One Year After the Tsunami
As I sipped a tropical drink seaside at Mom Tri's Boathouse at Kata Beach, gentle waves lapped at the sand, and a couple walked hand in hand along this horseshoe-shaped bay. From here, all seemed idyllic on Phuket, a well-loved resort island about 500 miles south of Bangkok. I spent time in early November in southern Thailand to see how — indeed, whether — the area had rebounded from the Dec. 26, 2004, tsunami that slammed into the Andaman Coast, leaving about 220,000 dead or missing, including about 8,000 in Thailand. I wanted to know what tourists would find when — and if — they returned.
Many places on Phuket have made a remarkable recovery. Hotels and restaurants are open, and the beaches are clean, the water clear and green. Tourists will see little physical damage, but economic damage is significant. "We lost about half of our [tourism] income" in 2005, compared with 2004, Pattanapong Aikwanich, president of Phuket Tourist Assn., told me. "And we had to repair everything."
But then there are places like Phi Phi Don island, a 90-minute ferry ride from Phuket, where the waves' full fury was felt. Rebuilding on Phi Phi Don has barely begun; the tragedy's legacy is all too apparent.
Officially, 721 people died in Krabi province, most on Phi Phi Don. Many bodies were never found.
That fateful day
FLASHBACK to the morning of Dec. 26, 2004: Some guests were asleep, others taking a Thai cooking class when two waves hit at Mom Tri's Boathouse, a 36-room low-rise hotel. One wave almost reached the top of Koh Pu island a short distance offshore, where diving students suddenly found themselves sitting on the bottom of the sea.
The Boathouse Grill was inundated with seawater and sewage. "Total devastation," said French-born managing director Louis Bronner. "The grand piano was found in the street in 16 pieces. The long-tail [fishing] boats landed in the ground-floor rooms," where water was waist-high.
Three people on this beach were among the 279 people killed on Phuket, but there were no casualties among hotel guests or staff. The Boathouse mopped up, refurbished and exactly two months later held its grand reopening. Today it's as good as new.
At Le Meridien Phuket Beach Resort at Relax Bay near Patong, Phuket's popular beach city, construction work in the parking area and some ongoing re-landscaping are the only visible reminders of the tsunami.
The waves destroyed the beach bar and restaurants. It smashed tiles in the enormous swimming pools and flooded ground-floor rooms in one wing. Water reached the lobby and shops, which sit back from and above the beach.
No one was seriously injured, but damage, including destruction of the below-ground central operating facilities, kept the hotel closed until Aug. 15.
Locals feel overlooked
IBRAHIM NGANKAENG, 64, sat on the beach at beautiful Ton Sai Bay on hard-hit Phi Phi Don island southeast of Phuket. Behind him hung a sign, "Return to Paradise." But this is no longer paradise.
Before the tsunami, this, the southern side of the island, was a magnet for divers and snorkelers, typically, 2,000 a day. They are returning — but slowly: Now about 600 a day come. Locals complain that the government has been slow to help them, making recovery in Phuket its priority.
"I wonder how I can survive," says Ngankaeng, who lost his livelihood when the water swept away his shops and bungalows together with his restaurant, Arida.
Far worse, he lost his wife and two grandsons.
Farther up the now-desolate beach, signs point the way to bungalows that once stood here. I walked among flattened coconut-palm branches to the Phi Phi Island Cabana Hotel, which is being rebuilt and is expected to be fully open by March.
Owner Wanlert Kittithorngul suffered a double blow — devastation of this hotel and loss of his new hotel at Khao Lak, a hard-hit coastal resort area in Phang Nga province on the mainland, 50 miles north of Phuket.
The Phi Phi Island Cabana was more than 90% full — 400-plus guests — when the tsunami hit. Ninety-six people died — 25 guests, some of whom were in the swimming pool that now stands cracked and empty — and 71 staff.
Walking around what's left of the hotel, Kittithorngul pointed out the ruins of the hotel spa —"seven persons killed."
We walked past the ballroom, where water-stained mattresses and mud-caked tables were stacked. Of the 40 hotels that stood on this part of the island, 30 were destroyed. Only four are now operational.
Somehow, he managed a smile when he talked about the new Amandalay villas, his unlucky Khao Lak property. "I opened on the 25th," he said. "On the 26th, nothing."
As I drove one day to the coastal resort area of Khao Lak, my guide, Jennifer, pointed out a boat sitting two miles inland, deposited there by the waves, which reached a height of 45 feet. Down at the beach, we saw smashed swimming pools, toppled palms, shells of hotels, wrecked long-tail boats. Before the tsunami, "you couldn't see the sea for the hotels," she said of Khao Lak.
We drove along the coast of the Andaman Sea to Cape Pakarang, which was partly washed away. The grass is brown; the seawater spoiled the land for farming, and some families have turned to farming tiger prawns for commercial purposes.
Casualties were heaviest in this province, Phang Nga — officially, 4,221 dead — and the nearby fishing village of Nam Khem was especially hard hit.
Donor money has built small cookie-cutter homes on stilts for survivors, many of them fishermen who lost their boats.
We stopped for lunch at the Khao Lak Merlin Resort, where staff stood about, anticipating our every move. The hotel's hilltop location largely spared it, but the industry has not rebounded strongly in Khao Lak, which lost much of its tourism infrastructure.
The Merlin, with a staff of 160 and 201 rooms, had 21 guests the day I was there.
MUCH of Phuket island was spared, although there were pockets of devastation on the less-sheltered western shore. Still, many people on Phuket suffer from what they call the "economic tsunami." Tourism is Phuket's lifeblood; 100,000 of its population of 280,000 work in an industry that hosted 4.6 million visitors in 2004. They generally stayed about five days and spent about $100 a day.
Today, visitors will see big billboards proclaiming, "Phuket Is Back," and, to an extent, that's true.
Of Phuket's 530 hotels, "only about 20% cannot be operated," said Aikwanich of the Phuket Tourist Assn.
Phuket's major hotels are up and running but are not fully booked. For about eight months after the tsunami, most had less than 10% occupancy, Aikwanich said. Gradually, tourists have returned. He projects major hotels "will run about 80% for the high tourist season" of November through April.
I stayed in three hotels — Le Meridien Phuket Beach Resort, the Chedi Phuket and Mom Tri's Boathouse, all fully operational — and found the staff-to-guest ratio decidedly in the guests' favor.
Asian tourists, who are a major market, also have been slow to return. Rudolf Borgesius, the Dutch-born general manager of Le Meridien Phuket Beach Resort, thinks they are concerned about whether "there are bodies floating in the ocean."
Bronner, of Mom Tri's Boathouse, said that, although some of his hotel's regulars returned as a show of support and others came out of curiosity, "it took a long time" to get the numbers up. "Some still hesitate," he said.
Like other high-end Phuket hotels, the Boathouse cut room rates after a slow September and was fully booked for October., having inspired bargain hunters. "More and more, we find this kind of guest," Bronner said.
"The mentality has changed."
When Le Meridien reopened in mid-August, business was slow.
But, said Borgesius, "Things picked up, mainly due to [the bombing in] Bali, I think. It's still a bit quiet." November occupancy was only half or a little better, but the hotel was fully booked for Christmas and New Year's. Conferences, 20% of the business, are returning.
Despite so-so occupancy rates for established hotels, the Phuket Graceland Resort and Spa, a new luxury hotel at Patong Beach, opened recently.
The 450-room Graceland is luxe on a grand scale; it has an entire school of sculptured seahorses spouting into pools, a bowling alley and the biggest ballroom in Patong Beach. But most of the guest rooms were empty.
"When the tsunami hit, we were in the last phase of construction," said Nawarat Thamrongvithavatpong, marketing and communications manager. "All the guests canceled."
Although the hotel was 30% to 40% occupied in November, she is optimistic: "Next year should be good."
Daniel Meury, Swiss-born general manager of the Chedi Phuket, a lovely tropics-style hotel on the island's Pansea Beach, said established hotels such as his, part of the Singapore-based Chedi chain, had the resources to cope after the tsunami but unlike many of the smaller hotels, including some on Phi Phi and at Khao Lak.
Still, the eight months after the tsunami were tough on everyone, he added, and "disastrous for the guy who sells coconuts on the beach and the little shopkeepers" and owners of small restaurants.
Sithi Tandavanitg, president of the southern chapter of the Thai Hotel Assn. and owner of Phuket's Metropole, which was unscathed, also sees this as a time of transition.
Although Phuket has made a remarkable recovery, he said, things are still "very bad" on Phi Phi and Khao Lak. He is aware that foreigners see photos of devastation there and think it's Phuket.
"We have to work harder to explain," he said, so the tourists will come.
'Like a washing machine'
AT Rawai on the southern tip of Phuket, we detoured to a fishing village where men were sorting the morning's catch — lobsters, sand sharks, squid, mackerel.
Pan Hadsaithong, 62, who was born in this village, said he had never seen anything like the tsunami, describing the waves as "like a washing machine." Villagers fled to safety on high ground, but some of their boats still lie disabled on the beach.
The tide has changed since the tsunami, said Hadsaithong, and there are "more fish from outside," the open sea, species that never before came close to shore. But commercial fishing suffered after the tsunami, because many people wouldn't eat fish, fearing the fish had eaten corpses.
As I sat on the beach at the Chedi Phuket under a thatched umbrella and watched a glorious sunset, the destruction of a year before was hard to imagine.
But later, as I talked with Sriharat Krutket, owner of a shop near the Holiday Inn at Patong Beach, the destruction was very real. He was away when the tsunami struck.
"After one day, I see my shop. I say, 'Where is my shop?' " On TV, he saw news footage of his jeans, swimsuits and handbags washing out to sea. He had only fire insurance and estimates he lost as much as $120,000. The store was closed for five months. He's counting on a quick rebound in tourism.
At a tailor shop on Soi Patong Tower Street near the beach, owner Vinnod Handa, formerly of eastern India, who has lived in Thailand for 16 years, told me he used to think he had it made, owning the shop and two restaurants. "Off-season, we were good in the restaurant," he said. "High season, we were good in the tailor shop." He has restocked and reopened, but the customers aren't coming.
The restaurant reopened in March but in late April a fire led to its closure again.
The restaurant is doing so-so now, maybe half of its pre-tsunami business, but he has lost 70% of his tailor-shop clientele. He has borrowed money to stay in business and has decided that after April he will "sell everything and move from Thailand," maybe to Australia or Canada.
"My old customers, I send them e-mails: 'When are you coming?' They say, 'No, this time I go to Spain.' "
Tourists are returning to Phuket, said Handa, but many are bargain hunters. "Budget travelers, they don't buy anything. They don't help us."
And everywhere, I heard the same appeal: Tell the tourists to come. It's safe. Phuket is back.
Said Phuket Tourist Assn. President Aikwanich: "If people want to send money, clothes, thanks. But what we need now is tourists."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Palms, beach and ease on Phuket
From LAX, connecting service (change of plane) is available on Thai, Asiana, China Eastern, Cathay, EVA, China and Malaysian. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $739.
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 66 (country code for Thailand) and the local number.
WHERE TO STAY:
Chedi Phuket, 118 Choeng Talay, Talang; 76-324-017, http://www.ghmhotels.com . What an island hotel should be: thatched roof cottages on the hillside above Pansea Beach. (Some units are way up there, a steep hike.) Cottages from about $355 in high season.
Mom Tri's Boathouse, 182 Koktanod Road, Kata Beach; 76-333-568, http://www.boathousephuket.com . Low-rise beachfront hotel for people who prefer not to stay in hotels. Lots of charm, away from bustle of Patong Beach. High-season rates from about $230.
Le Meridien Phuket Beach Resort, P.O. Box 277, Phuket; 76-292-666, http://www.phuket.com/meridien . Great location on Relax Bay, minutes from the center of Patong. Two pools, multiple restaurants, shops, inviting open air lobby. High season doubles begin at $165.
WHERE TO EAT:
Boathouse Grill, Mom Tri's Boathouse (see above). One of the top choices on Phuket, with creative menu and fine wine list. Dining on seaside terrace on a balmy night is a treat. Main courses $7-$20.
Dibuk, 69 Dibuk Road, old Phuket Town; 76-258-148, http://www.dibukrestaurant.com . In a 90-year-old former home with ceiling fans and wicker chairs. French menu selections, $2.50-$12.50. Thai menu selections, $2.25-$7.25
Rockfish, 33/6 Kamala Beach Road, 76-279-732, http://www.rockfishrestaurant.com . Stylish contemporary open-air fusion cuisine restaurant overlooking beach. Mosquito repellent came with my meal but wasn't needed. Main courses $7-$10.
TO LEARN MORE:
Tourism Authority of Thailand, in Phuket; 76-211-036; in Los Angeles, (323) 461-9814; http://www.tourismthailand.org .
— Beverly Beyette