DESPITE THE TRAGEDY IN PHUKET, the island fared better than other Indian Ocean destinations—places like the nearby Thai island of Koh Phi Phi; the Maldives; and Galle, Matara, and Yala, in Sri Lanka. "When I arrived in Galle in April," says Alexander Souri, owner of Massachusetts-based outfitter Relief Riders International, "beachfront resorts were still rubble, just plaster and brick on the ground." Images like that, coupled with fear of another tsunami, have sent tourist numbers plummeting across the region.
Koh Phi Phi suffered extensive hotel damage, including the loss of 1,400 rooms, and is projected to give up $90 million in tourist revenue in 2005. In the Maldives, the tsunami flooded the heavily touristed atolls of Mulaku and North and South Male, destroying hotels and restaurants. By mid-August 2005, the country was estimated to have lost $250 million tourist dollars since the disaster. Sri Lanka's burgeoning coastal tourism industry suffered as well, losing $42 million through the first half of 2005.
Thanks to locals' perseverance and foreign aid (the U.S. government has pledged nearly $1 billion in support, with private donations topping $1.2 billion), many of the nations that were underwater just nine months ago are speeding forward with the reconstruction process. The damaged hotels gracing the southern beaches of Sri Lanka are 67 percent up and running, and those in the Maldives are 87 percent in service. And though Koh Phi Phi is still in the early stages of rebuilding, American outfitter Big Five Adventure Travel is offering day trips to explore the island's limestone cliffs by boat.
The governments of the affected areas are gearing up, too. Last spring, the Maldives' Tourism Promotion Board began spreading the word about the archipelago to travel agents and tour operators across Asia. They also sent delegations to parts of Europe in hopes of regenerating foreign interest in the islands. Thailand has aggressively pursued the airlines, setting up deals with Thai Airways International, Bangkok Airways, and Orient Thai Airlines to reduce fares and bundle flights with discounted stays at resorts. And in September, Sri Lanka launched a $4 million advertising campaign to lure European travelers back to its beaches and highlands for the upcoming high season.
"The attitude should not be ‘Look how terrible it was.' The attitude should be ‘Look how far the area has come to recover,' " says Ashish Sanghrajka, Big Five's VP of sales and partner relations. "There's still lots of great things to see and do there."