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Phuket Beaches Hopping, Other Areas Still Recovering

New America Media, News Report, Pueng Vongs Posted: Jun 07, 2006

Editor's Note: Many popular tourist areas in Thailand that were hard hit by the 2004 Christmas tsunami are back in top form, and there have been unexpected beneficiaries due to foreign aid after the disaster. But other areas may never return to their former state, writes Pueng Vongs, a New America Media editor.
Phuket beach
PATONG BEACH, Phuket, Thailand--The fish tanks outside the barbeque restaurants once again teem with giant prawns a foot long. The narrow sidewalks are equally packed with tourists crowding together to watch the sun dip below the turquoise horizon. And the open air bars and discos are pumping with girls of all persuasions who flirt with passers-by.

A large billboard on the main road that leads from the airport to town exclaims "Phuket Is Back." Indeed, this popular beach bears little resemblance to the one right after massive tsunami waves slammed its shores more than a year ago. Entire sections of the strip looked like they had been clear-cut; shops and restaurants were obliterated and hotels gutted. The waters closed 25 of 89 hotels here. Some 250 lives were lost, half of them foreign tourists. But today, here in the hubbub of Patong beach, there is little evidence of the calamity.

The damaged hotels have shiny new makeovers and attractive rates. The Starbucks sign glows green, advertising frosty mango frapuccinos. Street hawkers who sell knock-off designer sneakers or shark tooth necklaces are back to driving hard bargains.

You have to look closely to notice the huts that rent beach chairs and banana boats, which used to come up to the waterline, are now restricted to operating several paces back at a safe distance from the shore. And on the main strip, new blue placards designate the "Tsunami Evacuation Route."

Before the tsunami, Phuket and the surrounding areas of Krabi and Phang Nga accounted for 30 percent of the entire country's tourism revenue roughly $2.5 billion and that number is steadily coming back.

There were approximately 1.3 million passengers who came and went through Phuket International Airport the first three months of this year, a 97 percent increase from the same period last year, according to recently released statistics from the Airports of Thailand.

After occupancy rates averaged under 50 percent for several months following the tsunami, business has picked up again at the Laguna Phuket Resorts, which owns five properties with more than 1,100 rooms on the island. In January, their high season, occupancy for the five resorts was around 85 percent. In February it was 75 percent, close to normal, and in March, 61 percent, and April, 72 percent -- all respectable levels.

"Tourists from the U.K. and Australians were the first to come back," says Debbie Dionysius, director of destination marketing at Laguna Phuket. "Many Australians were looking for an alternative after the bombings in Bali."

But not everyone has come back. Some 78 percent polled in North America, Asia and Europe said they believed that Thailand was severely affected by the tsunami and are avoiding the country, according to a study by the Pacific Asia Travel Association and Visa International Asia Pacific.

"Many people thought because of media coverage that the entire island was flooded, but the reports of disease never materialized," says Rung-aroon Wichitwatee, a four-year resident here.

Asian tourists scared away by ghost stories have been slow to return, according to Dionysius. Media had published accounts from locals who said they had sighted spirits at unrest on the island following the tsunami. "No one is talking about ghosts anymore," Dionysius says. But tourists from Japan and Hong Kong continue to be spooked.

While Patong beach, the crown jewel of the tourism business in Phuket is hopping again, it is a different picture in Khao Lak, another popular tourist destination 60 miles north of Phuket. It bore the brunt of the tsunami damage. Of the total 5,300 lives lost in Southern Thailand because of the tsunami, 4,000 of the deaths occurred in Khao Lak. Some 2,500 homes were also destroyed or damaged, according to the Disaster Tracking Recovery Assistance Center located in the same Phang Nga province as Khao Lak.

Government funds, NGO work and private donations have helped rebuild homes and villages, but there are still many dozens without homes. They stay in makeshift camps or "live in bamboo huts on hills or on the beach," says Issy Renters, a volunteer from the U.K. with the Tsunami Volunteer Center, which has rebuilt about 240 homes in the past year.

The situation is especially dire for those who lived near the beach or operated businesses without official registration. Their houses and businesses have not been returned to them. In some cases, "Big hotels have moved in to buy whole strips of prime beach that the government sold to them," says Renters. "A few NGOs are trying to help people still displaced."

But the disaster has also brought recovery and new hope. Of the hundreds of fishermen who lost boats in Khao Lak, each one of them have had them replaced, either with the help of NGOs who have rebuilt them or they were taught how to build them on their own.

"The outpouring of support has transformed areas. Nonprofits and Thais have come together to rebuild," says Linette Escobar, a volunteer from Hayward, California who has spent the past three months teaching English.

The island is now dotted with English schools that were not there before. One beneficiary of the new support are Burmese migrant workers, an invisible population frequently left out of Thai government aid and who are discriminated against widely by local Thais. There were approximately 30,000 Burmese in the area when the tsunami hit.

Says Escobar, "I think one of the most hopeful things is Burmese kids who did not have education before, there are now learning centers for them."

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