Saturday, June 18, 2005

2001 Bomb Alert, 2002 SARS, 2003 Bird Flu, 2004 Tsunami. What's Next?

I found this New York Times Article a pretty good April 2005 update of what life is like in Phuket. We talk about individuals who either "got wet or didn't get wet" - but the real tsunami survivors are the individuals who are getting back to their lives in places like Phuket!


ASIA ISSUE; After the Tsunami, Rebuilding Paradise
By Seth Mydans

EVERY morning as the sky brightens over the Andaman Sea, workers in Phuket, Thailand, set out perfect lines of white plastic lounge chairs along the soft sand, punctuated by furled umbrellas ready to be opened as the sun begins to burn. Vendors arrive with their ice-cold water, coconuts and soft drinks. Masseuses spread their straw mats under the palm trees. Jet Ski operators gather by their polished machines.
The peanut sellers, the manicurists, the boy with his book of temporary tattoos and the man who balances a basket of fruit on his head all take their usual places along the beach.

And then, to the soft caress of the surf, they wait.

As the day grows hot enough for mad dogs and Western beachgoers, a few vacationers arrive, by ones, by twos, taking their places here and there along the empty rows of lounge chairs and unopened umbrellas.

Nearly four months after giant waves swept more than 5,300 people to their deaths along the country's southern coast, the island of Phuket -- the crown jewel of Thailand's beach resorts -- has patched and pasted itself together. An aftershock on March 28 caused a brief scare among those who felt it, but hotels, restaurants, businesses and cruise operators say it has had virtually no long-term impact on bookings and arrivals.

Nevertheless, seismologists say the fault line that caused the original earthquake is still active and it is impossible to predict whether and when further shocks might follow or whether they might cause tsunami waves.

Along the main shopping streets, a few workers still hammer and drill, and some vendors hang their wares in front of damaged shops. But Phuket today is almost as good as new.

''It's 99 percent operational now,'' Simon J. Hand, a Phuket resident who is associate editor of Asia-Pacific Tropical Homes magazine, said in late March. ''At its worst, it was 90 percent operational. Patong Beach is the main tourist trap, and the wave hit everything along the shorefront road. But 150 yards farther up, even the next day, you wouldn't have known anything happened.''

All that is missing now, people on Phuket say, is the tourists.

Hotels that had been booked to capacity for January were able to fill just 7 to 10 percent of their rooms, Suwalai Pinpradub, director of the Tourism Authority of Thailand in Phuket, said in a telephone interview. Before the tsunami, she said, about 300,000 tourists visited Phuket each month, both from within Thailand and abroad.

International arrivals at the Phuket airport fell to 13,042 in January from 111,609 in January 2004, immigration figures show. The numbers rose in February, to 37,813, still far below the 114,903 in 2004.

The tsunami destroyed about 40 percent of the 53,000 hotel rooms in six southern provinces, according to the Tourism Authority. The authority cut its forecast for visitors to Thailand this year to 12 million from 13.5 million, a major blow considering that tourism produces about 6 percent of the country's gross domestic product.

Like Bali in Indonesia, Phuket is a tropical island that once relied on farming and fishing but now has one main industry -- tourism. And like Bali after the devastating terrorist bombing in October 2002, Phuket has discovered how fragile an economy tourism can be. But it is a self-renewing one, with an endless potential supply of visitors, just as the sea is still filled with grouper, squid and shrimp for the fishermen who lost their boats to the waves.

The number of international arrivals has begun to rebound, reaching 33,855 in the first three weeks of March even as the peak season began to wane. For all of March 2004, there were 82,028 international arrivals. Hotel occupancy in Phuket has grown to about 40 percent, at a time when occupancy is usually 70 to 80 percent.

For some people, this is the time to visit. The beaches and the water are cleaner than they have been in years and the beach road in Patong is no longer one unending traffic jam.

''It's better,'' Enzo Sare said as he relaxed on the beach. A retired army captain on his eighth visit from Italy with his family, he added: ''Yes, I am an egoist. Less traffic, fewer people; very nice. Of course, it's a disaster for the people working on the beach.''

Misconceptions are keeping visitors away now, both local people and visitors say. They blame television reports that show the utter devastation of places like Aceh in Indonesia while giving voice reports about Phuket.

''People say: 'How can you go to Thailand? It's dangerous,''' said Louis Bronner, general manager of Mom Tri's Boathouse hotel. ''Weeks after the tsunami they still think there are bodies floating, fish contaminated, don't drink the water, you can get cholera, typhoid, crazy things like this.''

Even in Bangkok, about 500 miles to the north, hotel Web sites carry tsunami updates that state what should be obvious: ''The Bangkok region has not been affected.''

Indeed, most of Phuket was far less devastated than the newly opened coastal resorts of Khao Lak about 40 miles to the north, where the Tourism Authority says 80 percent of the structures were destroyed. Almost none of them are operating now. Huge resort complexes, some of them still under construction when the waves hit, are vast dirt lots, their vegetation scraped away, their buildings in ruins, many of their workers and guests swept out to sea.

In Phuket, though, as construction crews continue their work, most hotels are open, or are soon to reopen. Restaurants and bars have been cleaned and remodeled. Tour operators sit ready beside signboards showing beaches and islands that are, for the moment, as pristine and secluded as their photographs.

Shops are restocked with everything from sarongs to souvenirs to sun block. Entrepreneurs have produced commemorative T-shirts, like one that offers a reminder of the shocks tourism has survived there in recent years:

''Patong Beach, Phuket, Thailand,'' reads the T-shirt, which comes in orange, red, black, white or purple. ''2001 Bomb Alert, 2002 SARS, 2003 Bird Flu, 2004 Tsunami. What's Next?''

When the tsunami struck Thailand's Andaman coastline on Dec. 26, the tourist season was at its peak and hotels were full. Then came what some people call the second tsunami -- the devastation of the livelihoods of the people who live here.

''No tourists, no work, no money, big problem,'' said a guide, Jakrin Samakkee.

Not Arunsi Kongon, a masseuse, nor Akani Jigaksorn, a tattoo tout, nor Chari Promden, who ushers people to beach chairs, had had a customer during one recent week. Curbsides were lined with motorcycles for rent. The bright red minivan taxis that once choked the beachfront road were parked and idle.

When a young man came to buy a bottle of water from Urai Chaiyen, who has sold drinks there for 20 years, she did not have enough money to change a 1,000-baht note, about $25.

As occupancy has dropped, some hotels are giving their employees only three weeks' pay for a month's work. Others have sent their workers out to troll the beaches with fliers offering deep cuts in rates.

Even without customers, many of the beach workers come here because, as a lifeguard, Somkid Koernoon, said, ''It is our second home.''

The harsh truth, though, is that even in the best of scenarios, they will not start earning real money until the next peak season, more than six months from now.

The hardships of the Thai people seemed to be on the minds of visitors who sat in the lounge chairs along the beach.

''That's the reason we came now,'' said Gordon Brind, 51, who was there in late March on vacation with his family from Britain. ''We were here last year and we decided to come again after the tsunami. Everyone was donating in the U.K. to tsunami funds, and in other countries, too, I'm sure. But the main part of it, really, is that they must have work to live.''

Pierre Alain, 46, on a visit from Switzerland, said: ''I think one must come, because tourism is one of the first resources of Thailand. One must come to help. It's fine here. It's normal. It's magnificent.''

Bill Harrison, 61, a relief worker who has spent many months here and knows Phuket well, suggested that one reason to visit is to witness history.

''I'm not sure what to emphasize,'' he said, ''to persuade people to come: because the people here need it, or come because it's great, or come as a traveler, not a tourist.''

He said a visitor now has the opportunity ''to watch an event in history, watching how a place picks itself up and gets started over again, and you're part of it, too, because these people need the income.''

Some potential visitors held back, particularly in the early days, out of a sense that it would be unseemly to splash in the surf in a place of death and mourning.

''You do think about that,'' Mr. Brind said, as he sat in the shade of one of the few unfurled umbrellas along Patong Beach. ''It's sad when you look out at the sea and how it looks now and you think of all the death out there. It's on your mind.''

But Jussi Rautiainen, who was on the beach with his wife and two daughters from Finland, said tragedy did not mean a place had to close down for business.

''If that was the thinking, people wouldn't go to New York either after the attack on the World Trade Center,'' he said. ''That didn't stop us from going to New York. You continue on. It's the only way to see the world.''

In Thailand, where people really do smile as advertised, the welcome in Phuket is as warm and generous as ever. But for the workers on the beach, it is hard to forget the day after Christmas. They talked of terror, sleeplessness and a constant fear that the next incoming wave could take their lives.

''I'm afraid,'' said Chulin Promdeng, 42, a masseuse. ''I'm so afraid of another tsunami. For 15 days, I didn't sleep. I keep looking for another tsunami.''

Ram Battarai, 27, who owns a tailor shop, remembers the wave as ''a slap, a very quick slap and within the slap all the shops are flat and the water is filled with cars and people and everything.''

Now, he said: ''It's very difficult to keep your mind well. You must keep thinking.If you let your mind free, many things come into it.''

Mr. Somkid, the lifeguard, explains over and over, why he was unable to save the bathers on the beach.

''At that moment, we choked,'' he said. ''We had never seen anything like that before. When we saw the water go far away, we knew something was wrong but we didn't know what it was. Then we saw the water coming very quickly toward us.''

Next time, he said -- next time he would know what was happening and what to do.

Sakino Natoto, 27, a tour operator, was sitting just across the road from the beach when the wave crashed in. It flushed her into the basement of a department store, then around and around as it carried her with it to the top floor.

Battered and cut, she returned that week to her desk by the side of the road and she was there late last month, calling out:

''Hello, sir! Tour information! How are you? Sawaddi Ca! Welcome, sir!''

''If it is possible,'' she told a reporter who sat down beside her, ''please tell everybody to come to Phuket. It is safe now. Because this was a natural disaster, not, how can I say it, not Iraq -- boom, boom, boom, boom.''

She added: ''You know, I am very lucky. In the last year, my husband left me for another lady, my leg was broken in a motorcycle accident and now we have the tsunami. My mother says, 'Sakino, you are very lucky!'

''Please tell everyone to come here, for happiness, for business and to change my luck.''


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