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.
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
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.
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
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.
greater Asia have largely been replaced by Thais, as Bangkok
Airways Phuket flights originate in Bangkok, Samui and Utapao,
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
international airlines were very slow in returning to Phuket, 22
carriers recently confirmed intentions to offer scheduled
On the human
level, every local I met during my stay in Phuket had aided the
tsunami recovery effort in some way. For 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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, area hotels and infrastructure were ready for business
in early March 2005, but hotel occupancies did not reach 50% until
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.
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
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?
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
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
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
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,
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
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.
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.
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,
Now that Starwood
has acquired Le Meridien, more exposure in trade and consumer
circles in the U.S. will likely occur, Borgesius added.
the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].