Travelers slowly returning to a reconstructed Phuket

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Upon my arrival on the Thai resort island of Phuket, the crowded airport seemed to indicate the recovery story I planned was right on the money. But once I reached Patong Beach, the most popular area hit by the Indian Ocean tsunami 15 months ago, differences appeared.

Yes, the gorgeous white sands still held lounge chairs and umbrellas in an unending string, but now in just one row -- not the three or four I had seen on a visit a few months before the tsunami.

The streets were a bit less mobbed with cars, buses, motorbikes and people. Salespeople at stores of every description were hawking their wares, but potential customers were thinner on the ground, even though it was the height of high season.

Reflecting the new reality, several new tsunami early-warning towers lined the beaches, and siren dishes sat atop buildings. In hotel rooms, evacuation plans were detailed, and actual drills occurred randomly.

Phuket is still a bit dazed by the vast destruction and loss of over 5,000 people. On this largest of Thai islands, about 14 miles wide, tidal waves penetrated only about 300 yards inland, but at the most heavily populated tourist areas on three major beaches.

Many helping hands

Recovery help came from all quarters. Airlines such as government-run international flag carrier Thai Airways and domestic airline Bangkok Airways worked to aid recovery and restore tourism.

We stopped flying on the day of the tsunami only and began relief runs to the stricken area the following day, said Arisra Sangrit, media relations manager for Bangkok Airways, which is now flying at 80% of pre-tsunami load factors.

Tourists from greater Asia have largely been replaced by Thais, as Bangkok Airways Phuket flights originate in Bangkok, Samui and Utapao, Sangrit noted.

This shift could be a direct result of our full involvement in the Tourism Authority of Thailands campaign to attract meetings and incentives business, but since November, Europeans are coming back for their season, she added.

Although major international airlines were very slow in returning to Phuket, 22 carriers recently confirmed intentions to offer scheduled flights.

On the human level, every local I met during my stay in Phuket had aided the tsunami recovery effort in some way. Photo by Eleanor M. WilsonFor example, a local dive expert had joined other divers in massive beach cleanups, while my tour guide had volunteered at city hall to reunite families.

Local travel agents figured prominently, too. The day the tsunami hit, Diethelm Travels Suchira Saetan, at the agencys Pearl Village Resort office, accounted for everyone in her group, arranged airlift for those who wanted it and bused some to Bangkok. She then registered all names with city hall while her charges moved out of harms way.

Tourists who didnt have a travel agent were in total confusion as to what they were required to do, Saetan said. They had to reach Phuket City Hall themselves, by whatever means, to register before they could try to arrange their own departures.

Sakda Praditkham, Phuket office manager for ground agency Tour East, handled the challenge of finding a safe haven for Star Clippers Star Flyer ship, sailing the Andaman Sea from Patong Beach. The Phuket dock had been destroyed, but the ship and her passengers were rerouted safely.

Phukets residents have learned a hard lesson. Theyve mourned the devastating loss of life, absorbed the fact that they need to work together and they rebuilt very quickly. Now, they want the world to know its time to return. The message? Phukets back in business.

Back in business

Or so says Suwalai Pinpradab, director of this region for the Tourism Authority of Thailand. Everyone worked very hard to bolster Phukets image, which was destroyed in the publics eye, although the damage only covered a small portion of our island, said Pinpradab.

According to Pinpradab, area hotels and infrastructure were ready for business in early March 2005, but hotel occupancies did not reach 50% until last July.

Now, in [the December-to-March] high season, I would say we are up to 80% of where we were when the tsunami hit, said Pinpradab.

The increases have not come from the U.S. market. From January to September 2005, U.S. stayover visitors dropped 53.6% to 37,490 against the same period in 2004, when 80,827 were recorded. Year-end statistics for 2005 were not available at press time, but officials at some luxury hotels in Phuket are said to be optimistic that new airlift will correct the trend.

We did not have the budget to reach out internationally so we concentrated on convention business, said Pinpradab. We also promoted domestic- ally, rebuilding first from within.

It seems the tourists are, indeed, returning. I encountered a mother and daughter from Huntington Beach, Calif., scoping out high-school exchange programs, and an Australian couple who have spent eight successive winter holidays at Le Meridien Phuket Beach Resort.

When their reservation last year was canceled, they immediately booked for this year and were enjoying themselves immensely. Another visitor, a Canadian, was on his annual monthlong holiday. When asked if he was touring all over Thailand, he answered, No, always Phuket. Why go anyplace else?

Tale of two hotels

It is said that the affluent travel no matter what, but Pancho Llamas, area general manager for upscale local resort Banyan Tree Phuket, said he has found otherwise.

Our resort escaped damage completely and we never missed a day in the ability to receive guests, he said. But no guests came. Of course, airlift was in a shambles, so our alternative was to cut our rates to an unheard of low and appeal to the price-sensitive Asian market.

It was a very risky maneuver, but it worked. Travelers from neighboring countries with air connections to Bangkok or Singapore took advantage of a rare opportunity to experience a luxury resort.

To assist Banyan Tree employees affected by the tsunami, a Green Imperative Fund was established, whereby each guest contributed $1 per room, per night, which was then matched by the resort company and distributed among staff.

Llamas said Banyan Tree also teamed with four neighboring resorts in Phukets Laguna district to run a domestic promotional campaign, which included strategically placed billboards emblazoned with the Laguna logo and a Phuket is back! catch phrase, television ads, travel agent fam trips and media trips.

When your back is against the wall, cooperation is key, and we all recognized that, he said.

Recovery soon kicked in. As occupancy increased, so did our rates, Llamas said. Now we are back to normal for the season, and we have even managed to retain some of that new trade, especially the Koreans.

Banyan Tree is so optimistic that its opening 21 new luxury villas this June, complete with lap and plunge pools and private butler service, according to Llamas.

The story at Le Meridien Phuket Beach Resort, meanwhile, was quite different. When the tsunami hit, wave after wave rushed over the beach, pools, bars and one restaurant, almost up the steps into the lobby. Although damage was confined to ground-level rooms and public areas, the hotel was not able to host guests and closed for seven months. And when post-disaster fams and press junkets visited Phuket, the hotel wasnt on the itinerary.

We didnt intend to close for that long, but insurance delays prompted us to plan a more complete $8 million refurbishing while we had the chance, said General Manager Rudolf Borgesius.

Employees were kept on payroll to help with the cleanup, and the hotel arranged a bank loan to furnish employees with lost tips until guests returned in late summer.

Le Meridien Phuket reopened last August, but not in time to appear in most tour operator catalogs. Just before reopening, management blitzed tour operators with information kits, travel agents with newsletters and consumers with e-mails. It also placed ads in the Bangkok Post and offered a special $90 nightly rate for six weeks.

We dont see Le Meridien returning to pre-tsunami occupancy levels until November, he said.

Now that Starwood has acquired Le Meridien, more exposure in trade and consumer circles in the U.S. will likely occur, Borgesius added.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].

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