Saturday, May 3, 2008

Post-Tsunami Phuket

Although it would misrepresent the facts to say that today's Phuket – Thailand's largest island and one of the world's top tourist destinations – looks the same as it did before the 2004 tsunami that was the greatest natural disaster in Earth's recorded history. But reliable anecdotal evidence does confirm that visitors to Phuket would have little reason to think that the island and its famous beaches were ever struck by the deadly wave.

Think what you will about ousted Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, much of the credit for the remarkable recovery, arguably the most thorough of any of the places hit by the tsunami, belongs to him. In a move redolent of his effort to pay off Thailand’s debt to the IMF for its recovery from the 1997 financial crisis, Thaksin determined early on that Thailand would attend to its own recovery – and not wait for international relief funds to arrive.

Some of that recovery has been laced with controversy. Chief among them are the charges that many of the former prime minister’s friends became the recipients of the country’s largesse, extra-legally taking over rights to lands that belonged to longtime Phuket residents whose documents of ownership were destroyed along with so much else during the catastrophe.

Still, contrary to dire predictions by many about the long-term negative effects the disaster would have on Thailand’s important tourist industry, they have not come to pass. For the most part, tourists have returned to the beaches and resorts on the Patong Beach side of the island, on the Andaman Sea coast, and new or rebuild resorts are there to accommodate them – and to provide essential work opportunities for Thais in the tourist industry. No appreciable drop in tourist numbers has been reported in this critical region.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for all of the parts of Thailand's Andaman coast struck by the tsunami. Reconstruction has been slower and more fraught with controversy in Khao Lak to the north, Phi Phi Island farther north, and coastal Krabi across from Phi Phi. Longtime visitors to many of those locations have, in various ways, tried to prevent the original owners of tourist properties there from losing their land and licenses. Not all of the efforts have been successful, and lawsuits regarding lands are choking Thailand's cumbersome court system.

Even so, the dramatic recovery of Phuket has become a beacon of hope for similar places on both sides of the Andaman and Indian Oceans, for whom recovery has been slower and fraught with even greater troubles.

Poyel enjoys life as an Internet financed permanent traveler with Thailand as a base

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