SPECIAL REPORT: AFTER THE TSUNAMI
Phuket: Should You Go?
Sunday, January 30, 2005
Now the sea is still again.
The beach is clear. The tropical sun casts its usual comforting shadows across the dunes. And Mary Davis, a 10-day refugee from the London winter, sits in umbrella shade by the endless pool of the Sheraton Grande Laguna, a perfectly happy tourist on Thailand's Phuket Island. A few dozen yards behind her, the ocean that recently flashed such a deadly scowl now wears an expression as serene as a Buddhist monk's. There is nothing threatening about the surf, Davis says, and nothing untoward, upsetting or unpleasant about vacationing in Thailand's tsunami zone.
"Do you see any devastation around here?" she asks, looking around the lush hotel gardens. In fact, there is scant evidence of the massive wave that swept Phuket's west coast on Dec. 26. Six oceanfront rooms at the Sheraton that were flooded have already had decks rebuilt and the surrounding grass replanted. The thatched restaurant on the beach reopened just a day after the tsunami. "We're absolutely disgusted with the media coverage back home. It's nothing like they portrayed it, making it seem that everything here was destroyed, like in Indonesia. It's terrible that people aren't coming, because these people need to earn a living."
Davis, 59, and her daughter, Amanda, 30, are surrounded by dozens of empty deck chairs, all of which would be filled in a regular January, one of Phuket's busiest seasons. The Sheraton is just 20 percent full. In Phuket overall, where nearly half the population is employed by tourism, occupancy is at 10 percent or less. While the major hotels are reportedly keeping full staffs on hand for now, smaller hotels are cutting back. Local officials predict widespread layoffs if bookings don't pick up by the end of February.
"This is doing more harm to the people than the tsunami," says Davis. "It's very pleasant here, and we're proud to have come."
Who wants to vacation in a disaster area? Not many, judging by the mass cancellations that hit Phuket immediately after the tsunami. To those travelers, it was self-evident that the kind of devastation broadcast from South Asia would wipe out both the facilities and the mood vital to a happy holiday. Surely, the last thing people racked by tragedy want to see are a lot of foreigners coming in pursuit of nothing more serious than tan lines and Tiger beer. And let's be honest -- to most tourists, a post-tsunami visit doesn't sound relaxing so much as ghoulish.
But people in Phuket, from bartenders to tourism officials, insist the sympathy is misplaced and the fears are misguided. Nothing, they say, not even the international disaster aid that Thailand has largely declined, would be more useful to the health of this tourist-driven community than airplanes full of merrymakers. And they insist that the wall-to-wall reports of Phuket's destruction were greatly exaggerated. The death toll here was nothing like the five- and six-figure body counts elsewhere. The beaches are cleared, the water is clean and -- with perfectly functioning water and sewage systems -- there isn't the risk of disease that hangs over India and Indonesia's Aceh province.
"It's very difficult for people to understand with CNN repeating every day that we are like Sri Lanka or Indonesia, but in Phuket it already feels like normal," says Suwalai Pinpradab, director of the Phuket region for the Tourism Authority of Thailand. With the high season ticking away, her agency is working feverishly to spread the word that Phuket is open for business -- now. An ad campaign will soon debut. Officials and volunteers are throwing together a festival a month, starting with a massive Chinese New Year celebration in February and an international sand-sculpture competition in March. And the government has begun flying in more than 1,500 travel agents and tour operators to show them firsthand that Phuket is still worthy of their clients.
"If they come, they will enjoy their holiday and see that we are not badly damaged in Phuket," says Pinpradab. She gestures at the scene outside the storefront window of her office in Phuket Town, a street alive with scooters and taxis. There are even a few fair-haired tourists across the road at the sidewalk tables of Yummy Fish and Chips. "Go and look for yourself," she says.
'Better Than We . . . Imagined'Phuket dangles off the elbow of Thailand's southern peninsula like a tattered cocoon, running 30 miles from north to south. The east coast was untouched by last month's cataclysm. The west coast is marked by more than a dozen crescent beaches, most separated by high bluffs. The tsunami rammed into all of them, but only two, Patong and Kamala, were truly smashed. Others were spared the worst, thanks to the fickle variables of wave dynamics.
To give CNN its due, there is profound devastation along Thailand's Andaman Coast, where more than 5,000 people were killed when the wave hit. Most fatalities occurred at Khao Lak, a high-end resort area on the mainland about 60 miles north of Phuket Town. Almost every hotel was demolished at Khao Lak, and the grisly work of identifying bodies -- many of them Swedish and Norwegian tourists -- goes on in makeshift morgues. The rebuilding there could take years. But on Phuket itself, the damage was far more limited. An estimated 235 people died here, a number that seems small only in comparison to the mind-boggling death tolls elsewhere. And on this island roughly the size of Singapore, it is indeed possible to move about many of the tourist zones and see almost no marks of catastrophe.
"It's really much better than we ever imagined," says Clare Albinson, an English hypnotherapist lounging on the patio of the Laguna Beach Resort on Bang Tao Beach. Her daughter, Jane, lies in the next chair with "The Da Vinci Code" open on her bikini'd belly. Her husband swims in the elaborate pool, a fanciful mock-up of Angkor Wat-like jungle ruins. They have the two pool-bar waiters to themselves. "When it first happened, we expected to cancel. It didn't seem to be the thing to do to come enjoy yourself in a place where there's been death and destruction. But the tour company in Phuket e-mailed us that things were not that bad and pleaded with us to come. We're glad we did. The people we've talked to seem to feel they were really quite lucky here."