After the Storm

From Caribbean hurricanes to the Asian tsunami, last year was hell in paradise. A special recovery report.

Oct 31, 2005
Outside Magazine

WAVE OF RELIEF: Phuket's Karon Beach resorts are back    Photo: Bazuki Muhammad/Reuters/Corbis

IN 2004, PARADISE WAS PUMMELED. Late December's tsunami in the Indian Ocean, caused by a 9.15-magnitude underwater earthquake west of Sumatra, destroyed beach resorts in Thailand, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives. More than 230,000 people perished—thousands of travelers among them—and hotels, restaurants, and other businesses were ruined along with the beaches. Earlier, in August and September of that year, four major hurricanes crushed the Caribbean community, racking up more than $6 billion in damages across the region. In both Southeast Asia and the Caribbean, many of the affected towns and provinces depend on tourism for their livelihood, so once the survivors were accounted for and the dead were buried, reconstruction and rebooking quickly became the top priority. But just how do resort areas bounce back from such devastation? To answer this question, we checked in on two disaster-struck islands: Phuket, off the western coast of Thailand, and Grenada, one of the southernmost islands in the Caribbean.

Before the tsunami, Phuket was one of the most popular beach destinations in Southeast Asia, generating more than two billion tourist dollars in 2004. On the day of the disaster, December 26, 2004, three giant waves slammed into Phuket's beaches, flooding hotels, uprooting trees and debris, and killing almost 300 people—with more than twice that number still unaccounted for. While the disaster was horrific, the lingering perceptions of the devastation have also proven detrimental: Due to extensive media coverage of the most severely hit areas in the Indian Ocean region, most people assume that the entire 30-mile-long island was leveled; in fact, only 12 percent of Phuket's rooms were damaged by the disaster. Still, tourism in Phuket has dropped 65 percent, and in the first half of 2005 the island lost more than $1 billion in tourism revenue.

In the Caribbean, no island suffered more than Grenada, traditionally considered south of the hurricane belt. Ivan, the first major hurricane in recorded history to have formed below ten degrees latitude in the Atlantic Basin, struck on the afternoon of September 7, 2004, with winds of at least 111 miles per hour. Its eye passed just south of the red-roofed harbor town of St. George's, ripping apart nearly everything in its path. Thirty-nine people were killed, and 90 percent of the island's houses were damaged. The tourism industry, still recovering after lean post-9/11 years, was upended. Total damage came to nearly $1 billion, more than 200 percent of the country's gross domestic product.

After both tragic events, aid poured in from around the globe. The United States, England, China, India, Trinidad and Tobago, and Cuba donated $58 million to Grenada. While the Thai government has refused monetary aid, more than $27 million has entered the country through post-disaster relief efforts. Now the two islands, victims of very different catastrophes, are gearing up for the high season facing equally different situations: Grenada, despite being slapped by Hurricane Emily this past July, has recovered further than anyone would have expected and anticipates a good winter season; Phuket, on the other hand, has been open for business for months, but no one's biting. Take a look at how these islands are faring and remember this: The best way you can help is to book a plane ticket and go.

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