Thai tsunami resorts await tourists

Chanida Chueratanakorn owns a beach-front restaurant in the beautiful Thai resort of Au Nang. Like many places on this stretch of the Andaman coastline, Au Nang – near the town of Krabi – was only slightly damaged by the tsunami.

But six months after the disaster, few tourists are coming, and Ms Chueratanakorn is finding it hard to make ends meet.

“We’ve considered closing, and maybe that might be the best option,” she said.

“But if tourists come and see everything shut up like a ghost town they’ll never come back.”

“It’s a really difficult time for us. Usually we save enough money in the high season to carry us through the low season.

“But the tsunami happened at the beginning of the high season, so now we don’t have any money to last us through this quieter period,” she said.

Sophia Buranakul, project manager for a local non-profit foundation, said Ms Chueratanakorn’s situation was a common one.

“There’s a huge amount of emotional tension among the people here, most of whom are dependent on the tourist industry,” she said.

Pristine beaches

It is a similar story further up the coast, on the island of Phuket. Most of the island survived the tsunami unscathed, and even the areas which were affected, such as Patong Beach, were cleared up soon afterwards.

According to Abigail Silver, UK publicity manager for the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), “Anyone going there for the first time would not notice anything had happened.”

But even now, in the low season, the tourist numbers are still noticeably down from this time last year.

“Tourists are gradually coming back, but it’s still not normal,” acknowledged TAT’s international PR director Tanes Tetsuwan.

“But people are feeling more optimistic about the next high season, and they’re already getting bookings,” he said.

While tour agencies are hoping Westerners will return in October and November – the start of the peak season – the Thai government is currently focusing its attention on the Asian markets, encouraging low season visitors from Japan and China.

According to Mr Tetsuwan, the government is also trying to help small and medium-sized businesses by providing loans.

But Sophia Buranakul said that most of the small business-owners she knew in and around Krabi had yet to receive any state help.

The inhabitants of the tsunami-hit island of Phi Phi are also still waiting – for the authorities to decide whether they can move back to their island.

“Everyone’s a bit frustrated, because not much has happened yet,” said Jantharawan Yimyaen, one of the islanders concerned.

“Some people are saying that those who died during the tsunami were lucky, because they don’t have to think about what to do with the rest of their lives,” she said.

The authorities have yet to determine a long-term plan of action for tourism on Phi Phi, leaving islanders – most of whom made their money from holidaymakers – in limbo as to what to do next.

Some, though, have decided not to wait. The trickle of tourists arriving on the island will now find more than 100 shops and cafes open for business, anxious to earn much-needed revenue.

Hope for next season

In one of the worst affected areas of Thailand, the resort of Khao Lak, the restoration effort is far from finished.

Even here, though, shops and restaurants have already reopened, catering to the small number of tourists and larger number of volunteers in the area.

In fact many operators are confident tourist numbers will rise substantially as the high season approaches.

The luxury five-star Sarojin Hotel will be one of the first to open its doors – on 1 September.

“We’re already getting bookings, and in December we’ve even got a honeymoon couple coming here,” said owner Kate Kemp.

“As well as traditional tourists, we’re getting interest from volunteers and people who have read about the area and want to help its regeneration.”

But the people of Khao Lak still have a long way to go before their lives return to normal.