The Flight of Friendship to
Phuket, Thailand (see story, "Flight of Friendship shows that Phuket is ready for
tourism") had two potentially conflicting goals. Its
primary purpose was to demonstrate support to tsunami-weakened
tourism areas of Thailand by promoting them -- showing that they
are again ready for business.
The second goal was
fact-finding. Industry delegates didnt want to promote the region
blindly, but to be able to give first-hand testimony about Phuket
Islands readiness for the return of tourism.
The conflict would
come if, once facts were found, the island wasnt ready. And there
was concern that detectable damage could be emotional rather than
physical. Its far easier to repair damaged structures than damaged
psyches, and, even if the infrastructure were sound, no one would
want to recommend a vacation in a place characterized by
Or characterized by
I was told by a
Thai official that some superstitious Thai and Chinese tourists are
avoiding the west coast because they fear ghosts. Of Phukets
condition, he said that while not back 100%, it was an attractive
destination once again.
So -- not back
100%? The phrase leaves some blanks to be filled in.
When I did tour
Phuket, I found it has some lovely, upscale properties that show
absolutely no evidence of tsunami damage. Although their occupancy
is in single digits, they are otherwise back 100%. The Hilton
Phuket Arcadia Resort & Spa, where I stayed, is a magnificent
resort, and it had suffered only a few broken shop windows at
ground level, which have been repaired. The view from my window to
the shoreline of Karon Beach showed perfect landscaping, with palm
trees, a swimming pool, lagoon, and even thatched hut cabanas
standing in what surely was the tsunamis path.
One thing I learned
was that a tsunami is more like a tornado than a hurricane -- it
can inflict great damage in one locale and leave an adjacent area
barely affected. Underwater topography, coral reefs and even rivers
can significantly affect the power of a tsunami before it reaches
shore. A five-minute drive from the Hilton was another resort that,
from photos taken before the tsunami, appears to have been a
stunning upscale property. Today it still requires significant
Five minutes beyond
that property is Patong Beach (see related story, "Tsunami brings about rule changes on Thai
beach") the center of Phuket tourism, which suffered
notable damage but which has managed to rebuild in record time. Not
back 100% doesnt mean that every shop, restaurant or hotel shows
damage, but rather that not every property is 100%
I had to leave the
group before it went to the resort area of Krabi. Flight of
Friendship organizer Sho Dozono later told me that damage there was
even less visible than in Phuket.
Facts are less easy
to determine, of course, regarding rebuilt psyches -- I couldnt
presume to know what the local people were truly feeling, but as a
visitor, I detected no outward signs that Phuket was a town in
shock or mourning. To the contrary, what I sensed was the spirit of
regeneration. And its Chinese New Year celebration was one big
The Flight of
Friendship had a focus on restoring jobs, and walking through the
empty corridors of my hotel, it seemed the focus was appropriate.
Flight of Friendship organizer Dozono put it this way: If you had
lost a loved one, imagine how your problems would compound if, at
the same time, you had lost your income. Thats the reality for a
significant number of people involved in tourism along the Andaman
Sea. They were employed by resorts, stores and restaurants that, at
this point, are perfectly operational. But their jobs wont return
until the tourists do.
Of the Flight of
Friendship, PATAs CEO Peter de Jong said, Its important to be a
messenger. And by getting behind the effort, the U.S. travel
industry has sent several messages, all of them
It says to global
travel industry players that their U.S. counterparts are not
focused only on their own domestic situation and terrorism -- an
especially important message during a time when much of the world
thinks Americans are overly insular.
It says to the
Thais that people in America are aware of their situation and are
sympathetic -- a point that had a restorative affect on their
And it reminds us
why we became involved in the travel industry in the first place. I
received e-mails from readers who said they wanted to go on the
Flight of Friendship but had conflicts, or simply couldnt afford to
be out of the office in the middle of the high selling season.
Nonetheless, they viewed the trip as a way to help repay the debt
all travelers have to foreign hosts who have made their lives
What, at this
point, can those who couldnt be on the flight do to help? It would
be folly to try to steer all beach-loving clients to Phuket in an
attempt to do good. But Id bet that every agency has a client or
two who would respond to the story of whats going on there, and
consider a vacation on Thailands west coast.
Its worthwhile to,
selectively, make the pitch. For the most part, the buildings are
restored. But only the return of tourism will restore livelihoods
and go a long way toward helping the living.