TRAVEL: After tsunami, tourism recovers in Koh Phi Phi, Phuket, southern Thailand

CHRIS JOHNSON finds the Andaman coast to be cleaner, friendlier and cheaper than it was prior to December’s devastating tsunami

Globe and Mail, Saturday, March 26, 2005

KO PHI PHI, THAILAND — ‘Is this enough?” Pookie asks her guests.

“Yes,” my friend and I reply in unison. A dozen fish dishes, including rarities such as plaa pak men (stinky mouth fish), are probably enough for two. Or five, for that matter.

“You don’t have to pay,” she says during our visit last month to Thailand’s Ko Phi Phi island. The 39-year-old guest house owner wants to reward us for being part of the first wave of travellers to return since the Dec. 26 tsunami killed more than a thousand people on the island, wiped out many restaurants and rooms, shattered coral reefs and moved white sand beaches into coconut groves. But we insist on paying. I have been to the island several times since 1987, but this recent visit was the best. Why? Because of the uncrowded beaches, discount prices and especially friendly service all along the Andaman Coast.

The tsunami seems to have set the tourism industry on Thailand’s southwest coast back 20 years, to a time when visitors to the country totalled less than a million a year (compared with 12 million last year, according to the Tourism Authority of Thailand or TAT). While the United Nations says the tsunami affected more than 500 Thai fishing villages in six provinces, many popular beaches were relatively unscathed or have been quick to recover their natural beauty, if not their usual number of visitors. Those include Karon and Kata on Phuket, Raileh and much of Koh Lanta in Krabi, and Koh Similan in Phang-Nga, as well as Phang-Nga Bay. Many beaches, including Phuket’s infamous Patong, are cleaner, whiter, and less crowded with sunbathers, hawkers, jet skis and beach chairs. “People watched TV news and thought that everything was damaged. But that wasn’t true,” says Suwalai Pinpradab, TAT’s southern regional director.

Yet, in February, stray dogs nearly outnumbered humans on the squeaky sands of Karon, perhaps Phuket’s best beach. Locals, jaded by two decades of foreign invasions, seemed friendlier. And the service was more personal: Pookie and Yao not only served us fish, they took us to catch them.

A Thai Muslim married at age 13, Pookie used to shy away from the half-naked foreigners who invaded her native island two hours by boat from Phuket. But needing money to rebuild boats and homes, Pookie and her husband Yao are now turning their humble residence into the Little Shrimp guest house for volunteer aid workers and tourists. (Like many rural Thais, Pookie and Yao identify themselves by only one name.) Pookie, and others lacking government assistance, say tourism income is the best form of aid because it goes directly into the pockets of victims, not administrators. “The government doesn’t help us, because southerners didn’t vote for them,” Pookie says. “Only farang (foreigners) are helping us.”

Government officials, however, claim they are indeed helping with campaigns to attract tourists back to the beaches after the tsunami left more than 8,000 people — about half foreign tourists — dead or missing in Thailand. The Thai cabinet has approved a $125-million project to rebuild and market the tourism industry. On Phuket, the industry employs about 300,000 people, many from other Thai provinces, says Pinpradab. In early March, the TAT and Thai Airways shepherded about a thousand journalists and travel agents, mostly from Asia and Europe, around Phuket and Krabi provinces. Pinpradab says the TAT is contacting corporations to offer incentives to stage conferences in Phuket. She says she hopes that visitors from Thailand and nearby Singapore, China and Japan will occupy beaches and pools vacated by Westerners, who now seem to prefer the east coast resort areas of Koh Samui and Hua Hin, which have been packed since the tsunami. “They’re not like tourists from Europe and Canada who come to escape from the cold.”

The strategy of focusing on regional tourism helped Bali recover after the Oct. 12, 2002 bombings that killed more than a hundred foreigners and emptied resorts for months. Pinpradab says Phuket’s hotel occupancy rates, which dipped below 10 per cent in January, rose to 40 per cent in February, helped by the first plane-loads of package tourists from Scandinavia, which landed in Phuket on Feb. 2 to much local media fanfare. Pinpradab says she hopes levels will reach about 50 per cent this month, and then near 100 per cent from November onward. But she admits they won’t likely hit the pre-tsunami target of 13 million arrivals in Thailand for 2005. “I think about 10 million for 2005 would be okay. If we are lucky, maybe more than that.” She says Phuket will likely receive three million visitors this year, compared with 4.2 million in 2004.

With fewer footprints on the sand, now is the best time to visit the Phuket area, she says. “Phuket is not so crowded, like Samui and Chiang Mai. There is good value for money.” Pinpradab agrees: “There are fewer tourists so everybody likes to serve those who come,” he says.

“We’ve realized that tourism is very important for us. So we treat tourists much better than before.” Prices are often halved, or better. “We are still in high season . . . but we are offering low season rates, with about 50-per-cent discounts on prices,” says Pinpradab.

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