Arnie WeissmannThe 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 sadness.

Or characterized by fear.

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 restoration.

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% repaired.

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 street party.

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 positive:

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 spirits. 

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 richer.

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.

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