When the tsunami struck on Sunday Dec. 26, I was in Bangkok, and as news emerged I rushed to the nearest television in a mall, crowding around it alongside distraught Thais. Later that day, I watched images of families searching for babies amid piles of bodies, and saw places where entire schools had been washed away into the sea. Many Thais around me were inconsolable, weeping -- a shock to me, because Thailand is a society where people rarely express their emotions openly.
Soon, amidst confusing and sometimes conflicting initial reports about the tsunami, we learned that the devastation was far from evenly distributed in Thailand. The deep south of Thailand was virtually unscathed; the tourist areas near the large island of Ko Lanta sustained only minor wounds. But Phuket was hit hard and the Phi Phi island chain, made famous as the setting for the Leonardo DiCaprio film "The Beach," had been utterly wrecked, with only a few buildings left standing. Television reporters mourned the destruction of Phi Phi, portraying it as an idyll.
Debris litters a Thai each where bungalows once stood.
(Suzanne Plunkett -- AP)
I knew different. And therein lies a partial explanation for the enormity of the tsunami tragedy, as well as a reiteration of a familiar warning for those living on other "idyllic" coastlines.
I first visited the Phi Phi islands in the fall of 1998. Living in congested, polluted, noisy Bangkok, I flew down to the beach for a respite. Setting off in a small boat for the main island of Phi Phi Don, I eagerly anticipated white sand beaches, warm water and solitude.
Solitude, though, was not what the islands had to offer. As the longtail boat approached the main dock, we saw that developers had built dozens of squat guesthouses and small hotels all along the main beaches with little planning. The places were jammed so close to each other -- and to the beach -- that it was often unclear where one tiny resort ended and the next began. Phi Phi Don's main street was similarly crowded; shops selling fiery local whiskey, phat thai, dreadlocks and other local necessities were built almost on top of each other. Behind the shops were tiny dwellings housing local workers. At night, Phi Phi Don's crowded spaces made the island so noisy it was often hard to sleep.
When I returned to Bangkok, only marginally refreshed, I learned more about Thailand's tourism industry, and realized Phi Phi Don was too typical. Over the past three decades, as Thailand had developed from a R&R getaway for American GIs in Vietnam to one of the world's leading tourist destinations, the Bangkok government had aggressively promoted tourism, developing innovative overseas ad campaigns, such as the successful 1990s "Amazing Thailand" campaign in the United States and Europe.
The tourism industry developed cachet in Thailand. Unlike in the United States, where the best and brightest graduates of elite universities go into government, high finance or other professions, many of my smartest Thai friends aspired to run hotels, or work on Thai Airways, or build their own resorts.
To some extent, the Thai policies succeeded. From under 2 million tourists in 1980, Thailand attracted nearly 12 million in 2004. Tourism became the largest source of foreign exchange; Thailand was breathlessly profiled in travel magazines; and the country's hotels, tour operators and airlines became world-class. The travel industry became even more important after the 1997 Asian financial crisis devalued the Thai currency by half, boosting the value of incoming U.S. dollars, euros and yen.
Europeans in particular gravitated to the kingdom, accessible via direct flights from London and Frankfurt, a much shorter trip than from the United States, where sun worshipers prefer the Caribbean, Florida or Hawaii. In 2003, nearly 400,000 people from Germany alone visited Thailand. German beer gardens and Scandinavian bakeries sprang up on Phuket and other islands, serving lagers and nutty brown bread along with recent issues of Die Zeit and the Daily Mail. When I visited Pattaya, a beach resort in eastern Thailand particularly popular with Russians, Britons and Germans, I would enjoy schnitzel along with my tom yam soup while watching imported white-blonde Russian prostitutes troll for clients along the main road.
At the same time, the Thai government imposed too few controls on tourism development; there were haphazard zoning rules for construction, and some land development allegedly enriched key politicians. Developers built on one island after the next: Phuket, Phi Phi, Koh Samui, the builders creeping ever south. Though a few Thai journalists and environmental organizations warned that this unregulated construction could have dire effects, they were largely ignored.
On Dec. 26, Thailand paid the price for its mismanagement and disregard for the dangers of coastal development. The death toll in the Phang Nga area, which includes the islands of Phi Phi, was nearly 3,700 as of early last week. I headed south, where I found the situation unbearable. Since Phuket was so popular with Europeans, they took much of the hit. Thousands of Scandinavians were initially reported dead or missing, in perhaps the worst disaster ever for those nations. At Bangkok's airport, Scandinavian diplomats frantically searched every flight arriving from southern Thailand, begging for any information about survivors and people missing.
The tsunami's devastation was in some ways unavoidable. Though the Thai government had about an hour's warning of the possibility of a tsunami after the initial earthquake, even those crucial 60 minutes would not have saved everyone. Even with the best protection, the sheer force of the waves would have devastated large regions of the Thai coast.
But the devastation did not have to be so horrific. Over the past three decades, as tourism had developed, construction along Thai beaches had destroyed natural mangrove forests and coral reefs off the coast. (Across Asia, mangroves are also cut down to build shrimp and fish farms.) Last summer, for example, the developers of a new resort on Ko Yao Noi, an island south of Phuket, were accused in the Thai press of removing large stocks of coral around the island. Similarly, last September, the Nation, the leading Thai newspaper, reported that Thailand's Department of Marine and Coastal Resources had found that almost half the coral reefs around Phuket had been wrecked. Previously, a study by Thailand's Kasetsart University had found that mangrove forest cover had fallen by half between 1961 and 1996.
These reefs and forests serve as natural barriers against the tides and could have helped block the deadly waves, though they wouldn't have stopped them. Mangroves in particular help stop coastal erosion, keeping barriers against the sea in place.
Meanwhile, as Thailand's travel industry exploded, local populations in the south have moved closer to the beach resorts, and migrants from impoverished parts of the country have traveled to resort towns searching for jobs. Phuket's population more than doubled since the early 1970s to about 240,000, and beachfront towns were overrun with hastily built apartments and shops. Krabi, another resort area, saw the population of its main town grow by more than 25 percent between 2000 and 2004, to 29,000. Had the tsunami struck five decades ago, when Phuket and other islands were sparsely populated, and most locals lived in Phuket city, well away from the beach areas, the casualties would have been much lighter.
Thailand is hardly unique. Across developing Asia, population density has increased exponentially in areas close to the water, due to the growing travel industry and to migration away from farms to coastal manufacturing and urban centers. This trend will continue; the demographic research group Population Reference Bureau estimates that the number of people in the world living within 125 miles of a coast will double by 2020. In many of these areas, land use regulations and property zoning are weak, making it more likely that any waterborne disaster will kill thousands.
It is too late to prevent the migration of millions to coastal cities and towns in Asia and other parts of the developing world. But in Thailand, some government officials have called for a reevaluation of tourism planning in Phuket and other islands, vowing that the rebuilding of hotels and other facilities will take into account the impact on local ecology. In parts of Aceh in Indonesia, like the provincial capital of Meulaboh, residents are considering relocating to higher ground. In India, the government has called for a comprehensive reevaluation of the country's coastal management policies. Other nations may be prompted to do the same. Then, at least, some hope would come from horror.
Joshua Kurlantzick is foreign editor of the New Republic. From 1998 to 2001, he covered Southeast Asia for the Economist and other publications.