HARDEST HIT IN PHUKET was Kamala, a beachfront village on the west side of the island. By the time the third wave struck the enclave, many residents had escaped up the hill behind the village. After the chaos and shock of the first few weeks, survivors displayed characteristic Thai fortitude and began to rebuild from the rubble, anticipating the return of the tourists. One store owner handpainted a sign and hung it in front of his store: even tsunami cannot beat us. we make the best homemade pizza. But nobody came to eat.
More than 95 percent of Phuket is up and running again. Not only have the beaches been cleared of debris, but many are widerby as much as 30 feet in some spots. Restaurants and bars have been cleaned and remodeled, and shops have been restocked with everything from sarongs to sequined handbags. The only thing missing now is the tourists. One day last April at the Terrace, a popular seaside restaurant, three musicians played the pan flute, xylophone, and lute, but there was only one couple dining in a room that seats 60. Outside, there were no bumper-to-bumper backups of cars, motorbikes, or bright-red minivan taxis headed to the beaches, because the seasides were deserted. As of August, hotel occupancy was down 65 percent from last year.
Phuket's tourism board has responded by working with local businesses to woo visitors with two-for-one deals, extra meals included in the price of a hotel room, and lower airfares. In addition, the Thai government has teamed with Thai Airways International and others to promote its "Best Offer"three days and two nights at any of 11 different resorts for as little as $80. The Trisara, a brand-new five-star resort on the Andaman Sea, is offering villascomplete with a 30-foot infinity pool, 37-inch plasma TV, and a yacht available for charterfor nearly 20 percent off. Meanwhile, Amanpuri Phuket and Mom Tri's Villa Royale hotels have cut their prices by 50 percent.
Still, the island is like a ghost townliterally. Much of the 60 percent decline in visitors from other Asian nations is a result of Chinese and other nationalities' cultural and religious beliefs that the spirits of the missing are still roaming the beaches. (More than 3,000 people remain unaccounted for across the region.) To win these tourists back, a highly publicized series of events is planned, culminating on December 26, 2005, the first anniversary of the tsunami. Monks and priests of all religions will "free" the departed souls and give permission for visitors to return to southern Thailand.
Tourists are also concerned about safety, should another tsunami occur. The Tourism Authority of Thailand is developing what it calls the "Safer Beach" concept, a plan that includes the construction of a "Memorial Gateways" wall in a heavily touristed area of Phuket, to serve as a permanent memorial to those who lost their lives while, in concept, slowing down any advancing floodwaters. The Thai government also developed a Tsunami Early Warning System, which has been operational since late May and is monitored 24 hours a day. (It was successfully put to the test in July, when it detected a 7.3-magnitude quake more than 400 miles from the island.)
Holidaygoers and merrymakers may not have returned en masse to Phuket yet, but judging by the locals' speed in rebuilding after the disaster and the government's concerted effort to shore up the tourism industry, not even the tsunami will keep the Thais down. A T-shirt that has cropped up in markets across the island underscores that resilience. On the back is a list of trials the region has faced in recent years: a post-9/11 bomb alert, worldwide panic over SARS, mass bird-flu hysteria, and now the tsunami devastation; the front of the shirt reads still alive.