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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 March, 2005, 10:49 GMT
Thailand's tsunami-hit tourism
By Kate McGeown
BBC News, western Thailand

Railay beach
Railay beach is usually packed with tourists at this time of year
Every day Yew Sittipan stands forlornly next to his empty souvenir stall on Thailand's Phi Phi island.

In the mainland town of Krabi, Michael Anderson's dive shop is also deserted, as is Nay Phethung's restaurant further up the coast in Phuket.

Since the tsunami hit Thailand's western coast on 26 December, tourists have been few and far between.

"Normally my shop is really full at this time, because it's high season. Now hardly anyone comes," said Yew Sittipan.

"We've already had Sars and bird flu in Thailand, and now this. What else is there to come?"

It is now three months on from the tsunami disaster, which killed more than 6,000 people in Thailand and left many tourist resorts in ruins.

Visitors are gradually returning to some areas, but others remain in urgent need of tourist cash.

Tourists explain why they are visiting tsunami-hit Thailand

Patong, the main tourist strip on the island of Phuket, has so far been the most successful area at attracting holidaymakers back to its beaches.

The main road, full of bars and restaurants, looks almost as crowded as usual.

Many of the tourists visiting Patong are surprised at how quickly the area has recovered.

"I think the Thais have done really well," said British tourist Sarah McKay. "I wasn't expecting it to be back like this so soon."

"When you're in the bars here you almost forget that the tsunami happened. It's only when you go down to the beach that you see the damage."

'Perfect time to visit'

But in the regions most affected by the disaster, such as Khao Lak and Phi Phi, practically all the foreigners in the area are volunteers, helping with the reconstruction effort.

Graphic showing tourist arrivals in Tsunami-hit countries

"It's good that volunteers are coming here," said Yew Sittipan, "but they don't buy many things from the shops."

Frances Hill, who owns a clothes shop in the resort of Railay, near Krabi, warned that many small businesses in Thailand might not survive the huge drop in revenue after the tsunami.

"Some people are definitely going to go bankrupt. I already know a few shops that have closed," she said.

"The ironic thing is that it's a perfect time to come here. It should be high season - the weather's perfect - but there are fewer people now than we usually get at low season. You can virtually have a beach to yourself."

Even when tourists do choose to visit the area, they are rarely in a mood for spending money, according to Charouge Aka, who owns a gift shop in Patong.

"Many tourists have come because the hotels are cheaper, and they aren't interested in spending money in the shops or on excursions," she said.

"It means that people like me still don't sell very many goods."

Krabi dive shop owner Michael Anderson agreed.

"The number of tourists is gradually increasing, but they're a different kind of tourist. They've come here on cheap package deals and they don't want to go diving."

Disaster tourism

But there is one type of excursion which appears to be proving popular, particularly in Phuket.

Tourists are hiring taxis and even buses to travel to the areas worst hit by the disaster.

Lars Schmidt, a Danish tourist currently staying in Phuket, is one of those whose curiosity led him to take the two-hour trip to Khao Lak.

"When we heard what happened on the news, we wanted to see it for ourselves. I'd been to Khao Lak before the tsunami so I just wanted to see what had happened," he said.

Some areas of the devastated landscape are proving particularly popular with visitors. Displaced people living in camps along the coast are getting used to seeing bus-loads of Thais and foreigners.

Buses in Khuk Khak
Visitors regularly arrive at Khao Lak's refugee camps

A police boat that was washed several kilometres inland by the tsunami, and came to rest in a group of trees, is also a popular photo spot.

"It's becoming a tourist attraction," said Karen Blackman, a British volunteer in Khao Lak. "There are plans to leave it as a memorial."

Ms Blackman has recently decided to set up a shop close to the police boat, selling products made by victims of the tsunami. This shop, at least, is not short of customers.

"We've only been open a few days and we had a coach-load of more than 100 Americans this morning. They almost cleared us out," she said.

But while the money from a not-for-profit craft shop is a welcome source of income for Thailand's tsunami survivors, it is not a long-term solution.

Thailand's tourist agency is anxious to get the message out that its beaches, bars and shops are back open for business as usual.

"The only area that we would advise people not to go to is Khao Lak, but all the other areas are completely fine to visit," said Richard Hume, the UK Marketing Director for the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

"In fact, the sea looks better than it has done for 20 years, as the tsunami has washed a lot of debris away."

Mr Hume estimated that tourism would be back to normal by the summer - with the exception of Khao Lak, which would take a couple of years to recover.

In the meantime, the small businesses dependent on the tourist trade desperately need visitors.

As Giovanni Romchi, an Italian tourist in Patong Beach, put it: "The people who survived the disaster here need money. If tourists do not come back soon, they will face another disaster - this time a financial one."

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