Tourism Brightens After Tsunami
Soudalath Phonpachith, Lao PDR
(Additional reporting by Pham Van Trang, Vietnam)
A vendor in Patong Beach is sitting on a pink plastic chair, chatting with customers under the shade of a coconut tree. He is happy that his business is back to normal, and that he can earn up to 5,000 baht per day.
“Now my income is similar to the day before the tsunami,” said Charlie Natakurtgong, who has rented beach chairs for more than 20 years. “Many tourists are coming back to Thailand.”
Nearby, Sutatsha Denprapa, a Thai tourist from Bangkok, was looking at rainbow-colored parachutes along the beach. “Everything is back to normal,” she said. “I have come here three times since the tsunami.”
The giant waves that slammed into Phuket in 2004 killed nearly 300 people on the island, damaged dozens of hotels and temporarily crippled the local economy. But many hotels and tourism-related businesses have returned to pre-tsunami conditions, thanks to the passage of time and an aggressive marketing campaign by the Tourism Authority of Thailand.
Patong Beach is Phuket’s most popular destination. The main street is lined with tour companies, restaurants, hotels, souvenir and clothing shops, bars and discotheques. On the beach there are jet-skis and throngs of foreigners basking in the sun.
Charlie, who lost his staff, younger brother and all of his property in the giant waves, said he borrowed 400,000 baht from the bank to re-start his business. Now he has almost finished paying it back.
“The new investment after the tsunami was very high,” he said. All of his new chairs had to be plastic, under regulations from the tourism authority. “Even though plastic chairs are more expensive, they are a safety guarantee for tourists if another wave comes,” Charlie said. “We won’t have any wooden chairs to hit tourists.”
The number of visitors to Phuket was nearly 4.5 million last year – only 6 percent below pre-tsunami levels, according to Suwalai Pinpradab, director of the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s Region 4 office, which covers Phuket, Krabi and Phang Nga provinces.
“Phuket is recovering quickly from the tsunami after it was quiet for more than a year,” she said. “In 2004, we called it a golden year because the number of tourists increased 23 percent from the previous year.”
After the tsunami, tourism fell 50 percent because many tourists were scared and shocked by the tragedy. In reality, Phuket was minimally damaged compared to other places.
“People watched CNN and BBC and thought Aceh (the worst hit area where more than 130,000 were killed) was the same as here. We have to make the right perception for this,” Suwalai told a group of Asian reporters.
Suwalai invited more than 100 journalists from across the world to report “the truth” about the area. It cost more than 100 million baht, but the strategy eventually worked.
Phuket received more than 1.1 million tourists during the first three months of the year, Suwalai said. Now there are 570 hotels and about 35,000 rooms. In the near future, 16 new hotels will be built, adding more than 1,000 rooms.
A receptionist at the Safari Beach Hotel in Patong, Sonechai Janthipbodee, confirmed that bookings had increased, but were 20 percent less than before the tsunami. In 2005, Sonechai said, the hotel reduced staff and he had to stop working for a year.
Most of Phuket’s visitors come from 10 countries, including Sweden, Australia, China, Japan and Germany. Many ghost-believing Taiwanese, Chinese and Japanese tourists are not seen as much as they were two and a-half years ago.
“We had to invite priests from Taiwan and Korea to arrange a (merit-making) ceremony,” Suwalai said. “We also invited television and newspapers so they could report on what we have done. It takes some time for Taiwanese and Chinese people.”
For foreigners, ghosts are not a concern. Nor, it seems, is the prospect of another catastrophe. Alix Perth, an Australian tourist walking on the beach, said, “I don’t think a tsunami can happen often, so I’m not worried about it.”
Another tourist, Kevin Oates from Canada, said he was not scared either.
“There is a warning system in the area, and there are many local people and tourists on the beach,” he said. “If something happens and they run, I will follow them.”
The government has installed 18 tsunami warning towers in Phuket. The towers will sound alarms if a tsunami is coming, giving people time to run away.
Dr. Smith Dharmasaroja, chairman of the National Disaster Warning Administration Committee, said another tsunami could hit Thailand within 10 or 15 years, so people should be prepared.
Phuket is not the only place with warning towers. Similar devices have been built in Khao Lak in Phang Nga province, a popular destination north of Phuket. Khao Lak was hit harder than Phuket. More than 2,000 people died – half of them foreign tourists – and many hotels were completely destroyed.
Some signs of the tsunami still remain. Along the beach front, there is an empty and broken three-story hotel where trees have grown over poles, the swimming pool is dirty, and roof tiles are still missing from the day the waves ripped them away. In front of the hotel, there is broken concrete roof, some wood, and ceramic tiles buried in the sand.
Khao Lak’s recovery has been slower than Phuket’s, but many in the tourism industry expect the next high season to be a good one.
“I am sure that this year my market will increase by more than 90 percent,” said Pongsakorn Wongpanich, general manger of the Khao Lak Sunset Resort, which has 60 rooms. In 2005, occupancy was only 5 percent, he said, but last year that increased to about 60 percent. Now his resort is already booked to about 80 percent for the high season.
Pongsakorn said the quality of the sea water is cleaner, a factor bringing back tourists.
Environmental experts agree. “The water quality after the tsunami improved a bit because the tsunami wave swept away [dirty] bottom sediments that were close to the shore,” said Ukkrit Satapoomin, senior marine biologist at the Phuket Marine Biological Center.
Ukkrit said coral reefs attract more than 2 million divers and snorkelers annually. “Actually, the impacts of the tsunami on the kinds of habitats like coral reef and mangrove forests are minimal. From general findings we can say the impact on this kind of ecosystem is not much,” Ukkrit said.
Besides its clean beaches, Khao Lak offers a quiet place for tourists who want to relax with their families and be in touch with nature. There are no jet skis, massage ladies, parachutes, vendors or chairs for rent.
“Khao Lak is different from Phuket. Nature is still beautiful and quiet. We feel like we are living on an island,” said Martin Raich, general manager of Le Meridien Khao Lak hotel. Raich said that in the past many people did not know about Khao Lak, only Phuket, but after the tsunami more people know about it. Many investors from Germany and Sweden are coming, he noted.
The Manager of Happy Lagoon tour company, Aoo Seaphoo, said that last year his market was back up to 90 percent. In fact, he stressed, many more guests wanted to come, but Khao Lak did not have enough accommodation for them because many hotels were still rebuilding.
“This year, I believe that Khaolak will have more tourists because many new hotels in the area are under construction, and some damaged hotels are repairing and redecorating to handle the increasing number of tourists,” Aoo said.
The owner of the Viking Steak House and Pizzeria in Khao Lak, Ria Netboot, said she had a good high season last year and expects even more tourists this year. “Tourism in the region is booming definitely,” she said.
Kanyarat Tantiviwat, front office manager for the Khao Lak Bhandari resort and spa, said, “I am confident that more and more guests will come. I learned it from my experience and feeling. We didn’t expect Scandinavians, the group with the most deaths in the area, to come, but they were the first group (back) here. We reached 10 percent in January 2007. Amazing for us.”