Help the recovery in Thailand

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The killer tsunami of Dec. 26 devastated parts of Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India and even reached African shores. The total loss of life may never be known. Thailand’s six southern provinces along the Andaman Sea also were battered by the tidal waves. The popular tourist beaches in Phuket, Krabi, Phi Phi and Khao Lak suffered varying degrees of death and damage though, on the whole, much less than their Indian Ocean neighbors. In early March ’05, I visited Phuket, Thailand, 1½ hours by air west of Bangkok, as a guest of the Tourism Authority of Thailand to observe the resort area’s recovery.

The tsunami hit each beach differently, depending on geography, coral reefs and mangrove forests. The lands closest to the beaches are scarred. The ground has been cleared, but lines of swimming pools can be seen surrounded by bare earth. While most buildings were swept away, some reinforced concrete buildings still stand in various stages of disrepair. The recovery effort has been remarkable. In a few months, visitors will have to search for tsunami scenes.

Most of the luxury hotels were built back from the beachfronts, and some, like Patong’s Novotel, high above on rocky outcroppings. Many suffered only flooding and saltwater damage and will be relatively easy to repair. The rains, which come sometime in May, were expected to wash the salt away and promote growth on the bare land behind the beaches.

While so much energy is concentrated on restoring the land, offshore there are scuba divers and many tourist volunteers under governmental direction repairing the broken coral reefs, reattaching coral shards.

Thailand was caught unprepared for the tsunami. There is nothing in Thai history, folklore or religion about such an event. Today, the Thais are joining with other Indian Ocean nations to develop a tsunami early warning system much like that in the Pacific. They also are rigging the beaches with a system of loudspeakers to broadcast warning of any inbound tidal wave. In addition, mangrove forests are being replanted on the shores to help absorb a tsunami’s energy.

Believe it or not, Thais are proud to tell the world about the tsunami’s benefits. The waves dropped huge amounts of white sand on the beaches. And the waters have never been more crystal clear. Perhaps that is why other fish species have arrived in the waters around Phuket.

What can we outside Thailand do in addition to our already remarkable charitable support? Thais in the affected areas are begging tourists to return. In Phuket, over the years, tourism has supplanted tin mining as the area’s engine. While rubber, logging, pineapples, fishing and shrimp farming are significant to the economy, tourism — born in the Vietnam War R&R program — is now the most important economic force.

Upon my visit, close to 80% of the hotel rooms had reopened or were about to. Occupancies were hovering at about 40%. For their part, hotels have resisted reducing staff. James Batt, Managing Director of the five upscale Laguna properties, said, “Our staff earns 25% of it compensation from us and the other 75% from service charges. We give them all the property’s service charges, but there isn’t much to give when the hotels are 10%-40% occupied.” Since the tsunami, many Thais in the tourist industry have left Phuket for better-playing jobs elsewhere.

And if they could talk, the 16 elephants in Patong Beach’s over-the-top “Fanta Sea” spectacular show, part cultural and part circus, would beg for spectators. It’s tough to buy their tons of hay — and the show’s pyrotechnics — when only 300 attend the daily performances in the 3,000-seat theater.

There is every reason for visitors to return to Thailand. The weather is great, the beaches are better than before and, until full recovery, resort rates are negotiable. For more info, visit www.phuket.com and www.tourismthailand.org.

DENNIS CAVAGNARO
Oakland, CA

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The killer tsunami of Dec. 26 devastated parts of Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India and even reached African shores. The total loss of life may never be known. Thailand’s six southern provinces along the Andaman Sea also were battered by the tidal waves. The popular tourist beaches in Phuket, Krabi, Phi Phi and Khao Lak suffered varying degrees of death and damage though, on the whole, much less than their Indian Ocean neighbors. In early March ’05, I visited Phuket, Thailand, 1½ hours by air west of Bangkok, as a guest of the Tourism Authority of Thailand to observe the resort area’s recovery.

The tsunami hit each beach differently, depending on geography, coral reefs and mangrove forests. The lands closest to the beaches are scarred. The ground has been cleared, but lines of swimming pools can be seen surrounded by bare earth. While most buildings were swept away, some reinforced concrete buildings still stand in various stages of disrepair. The recovery effort has been remarkable. In a few months, visitors will have to search for tsunami scenes.

Most of the luxury hotels were built back from the beachfronts, and some, like Patong’s Novotel, high above on rocky outcroppings. Many suffered only flooding and saltwater damage and will be relatively easy to repair. The rains, which come sometime in May, were expected to wash the salt away and promote growth on the bare land behind the beaches.

While so much energy is concentrated on restoring the land, offshore there are scuba divers and many tourist volunteers under governmental direction repairing the broken coral reefs, reattaching coral shards.

Thailand was caught unprepared for the tsunami. There is nothing in Thai history, folklore or religion about such an event. Today, the Thais are joining with other Indian Ocean nations to develop a tsunami early warning system much like that in the Pacific. They also are rigging the beaches with a system of loudspeakers to broadcast warning of any inbound tidal wave. In addition, mangrove forests are being replanted on the shores to help absorb a tsunami’s energy.

Believe it or not, Thais are proud to tell the world about the tsunami’s benefits. The waves dropped huge amounts of white sand on the beaches. And the waters have never been more crystal clear. Perhaps that is why other fish species have arrived in the waters around Phuket.

What can we outside Thailand do in addition to our already remarkable charitable support? Thais in the affected areas are begging tourists to return. In Phuket, over the years, tourism has supplanted tin mining as the area’s engine. While rubber, logging, pineapples, fishing and shrimp farming are significant to the economy, tourism — born in the Vietnam War R&R program — is now the most important economic force.

Upon my visit, close to 80% of the hotel rooms had reopened or were about to. Occupancies were hovering at about 40%. For their part, hotels have resisted reducing staff. James Batt, Managing Director of the five upscale Laguna properties, said, “Our staff earns 25% of it compensation from us and the other 75% from service charges. We give them all the property’s service charges, but there isn’t much to give when the hotels are 10%-40% occupied.” Since the tsunami, many Thais in the tourist industry have left Phuket for better-playing jobs elsewhere.

And if they could talk, the 16 elephants in Patong Beach’s over-the-top “Fanta Sea” spectacular show, part cultural and part circus, would beg for spectators. It’s tough to buy their tons of hay — and the show’s pyrotechnics — when only 300 attend the daily performances in the 3,000-seat theater.

There is every reason for visitors to return to Thailand. The weather is great, the beaches are better than before and, until full recovery, resort rates are negotiable. For more info, visit www.phuket.com and www.tourismthailand.org.

DENNIS CAVAGNARO
Oakland, CA