December 27, 2005

Paradise regained as ‘The Beach’ bounces back

By Ed Cropley

KOH PHI PHI, Thailand -- Even as the mourners were placing flowers on the beach in memory of loved ones lost in the tsunami, Koh Phi Phi was welcoming fresh boatloads of its lifeblood -- tourists and beer.

A year ago, in the immediate aftermath of the December 26 disaster, the Thai island famed as the backdrop to cult backpacker movie "The Beach" was written off as "Paradise Lost."

Around 700 people had been killed and most of the tiny, jungle-clad outcrop's homes, guesthouses and businesses lay in ruins.

This week, as hundreds of relatives gathered from across the globe to mourn the victims of the killer waves, the rejuvenated holiday playground hardly skipped a beat.

By day, boatloads of divers and snorkellers headed off to pristine coral reefs as sunbathers lolled on white-sand beaches or cooled off in the azure waters of the Andaman Sea.

At night, restaurants were crammed with diners, who later flocked to fire dancing displays or drank the night away at the many beachfront bars pumping out Western pop music.

Phi Phi, everybody agreed, had recaptured its magic.

"It's absolutely beautiful. It's got bars and untouched beaches. What more could you want?" said 20-year-old Australian backpacker Amanda Rodriguez.

"Paradise it certainly is," said her friend Shanelle Jeffries, also from Australia.

With little or no government help, the revival is thanks mainly to local Thai and foreign business owners and an army of foreign volunteer workers anxious that Phi Phi should not be allowed to disappear.

"Even when it was completely trashed, I thought 'It's still a beautiful island, so people will come back', although I have to admit I was looking more at two years," said British dive shop owner Steve Goff.

"It's great to see it now -- but it's no thanks to the government," he added. Like many locals, he still believes top officials far away in Bangkok are conspiring to annex the entire island and turn it into a luxury $1,000-a-night hideaway.

The government says reconstruction delays are due to the need for a comprehensive zoning plan for the island.

"PHUKET IS BACK"

By contrast, in the other tsunami-hit areas of Thailand, where 5,395 people died and nearly 3,000 are still listed as missing, the government pumped an initial $94 million into tourism reconstruction.

It followed that with an extra $20-million international marketing campaign.

A billboard declaring "Phuket is Back" greets arrivals at the international airport on the "Pearl of the Andaman" island, which is now hosting beach-volleyball tournaments, yacht racing and a film festival to get tourism back on track.

With Phuket's central Patong beach a sea of sun-worshippers and umbrellas the day after the disaster's first anniversary, the promotions and cheap room rates appear to be having an impact.

But 120 km (70 miles) to the north, on the Khao Lak coastline where the tsunami claimed the majority of its victims in Thailand, many of them foreign holidaymakers, things are very different.

Beaches are deserted and many resorts still lie in ruins. THE U.N. World Tourism Organization estimates Khao Lak hotel's capacity at about 500 rooms compared to 6,000 before the tsunami.

Occupancy rates of up to 30 percent for the handful of reopened hotels have provided confidence that a full recovery is inevitable -- but distant.

"The Thai government is doing everything to promote the area and rebuild and it will happen," said Patrick Bassett, regional vice president of French hotel group Accor, which ran the Khao Lak Sofitel where 54 staff and 129 guests perished.

"In a few years I expect there will be as many rooms as before," he said.

(Additional reporting by Darren Schuettler in PHUKET)