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Southern Thailand Rebuilds from Tsunami but Lack of Tourists Hurts Local Economy

Thailand Tsunami Recovery Gallery

Across southern Asia, victims of last December's tsunami are still trying to put their lives back together six months after the giant waves devastated their communities. In Thailand, where more than 5,000 people were killed, including 2,000 foreign tourists, some communities are beginning to recover. But others are still devastated and tourism in the entire region continues to suffer because of the disaster. Correspondent Scott Bobb reports from several communities in the region known as Phuket.

It is mid-day in Nam Khem, a fishing village in Khao Lak district on the Indian Ocean coast of southern Thailand. Heavy clouds on the horizon warn that the monsoon season is about to begin. Workers are rushing to repair scores of fishing trawlers damaged by last December's tsunami.

Khun Lek is a burly man with the thick hands of a veteran carpenter. He and his crew have been working for a half-month on a wooden trawler that was badly damaged by the waves.

"In one week we'll be finished and the boat can go back into the water," he says.

He says repairs on the 15-meter-long boat will cost several thousand dollars. Many other boats still lie on the shore awaiting repairs. Of the hundreds of fishing boats damaged by the 10-meter-high waves, very few were covered by insurance. The Thai government and donor groups have provided loans to help get the industry running again, but the fishermen say they have seen little of the money.

In Nam Khem village, where most of the houses were swept away, leaving only their foundations, some villagers are beginning to rebuild.

Many are doing the work themselves. Others are being helped by the Thai military. Some villagers have already moved back, but most of the several thousand displaced are still in temporary shelters at the Ban Muang resettlement camp, several kilometers inland.

Many are still grieving for loved ones. Unemployment is high.

Yod, a fisherman, sits with his family outside their one-room, plywood home. He lost his boat and his house in the tsunami, but his family survived. He hopes to return to the sea, but the wait could be long.

"Some of the boats have already gone out to sea," he says. "I'm waiting for them to build my boat. Sometimes, you order first, but the boat goes to someone else."

In addition to the fishermen, people who depend on tourism are also struggling.

Phi Phi is a group of forested islands, fringed by sun-whitened beaches, located a couple of hours by ferryboat from Pukhet. Phi Phi is still a disaster zone. Almost all the houses and shops were destroyed.

Most survivors now live in temporary shelters on the mainland. But some residents, aided by volunteers, are cleaning up.

Volunteer divers are removing debris that was swept by the waves into the bay.

The effort was launched by Andrew Hewett, an 11-year resident who operates an eco-tourism shop. Mr. Hewett lost all his belongings in the tsunami, but his family of four was spared.

"My wife and I took the two kids 25 seconds around the corner and 15 seconds later there was a tsunami," he said. "So that's probably my incentive, that's probably why I'm doing what I'm doing, because I survived it."

Aided by several dozen Thai residents who are paid from private donations, divers have removed more than 100 tons of debris in the past three months. While underwater, they load the trash into nets, which are lifted to the surface using bags filled with air. After they finish here, in about three months, they will move to other beaches on the islands.

In addition to its beaches, the Phuket region of Thailand, lying on the Andaman Sea, is home to magnificent coral reefs and marine life, making it one of the top 10 diving destinations in the world. After the tsunami, many feared the reefs had been destroyed.

But a coral reef specialist with the Phuket Marine Biological Center, Niphon Phongsuwan, says most of the hundreds of reefs sustained little or no damage.

"The heavily damaged sites in proportion to the total reefs in the Andaman Sea, that is about 13 percent," he says.

After the tsunami, volunteer divers removed debris and sand from the reefs and saved many corals. They spent subsequent weeks righting overturned coral heads and re-attaching fan-like corals to rocks so that they could resume filtering nutrients from the sea.

They also began to re-seed damaged reefs by cementing still-living coral pieces to bricks and laying them over the dead reefs.

Mr. Niphon says some of the reefs will recover in a few years, but others must be closed to tourists until they regenerate. Overall, he is optimistic.

"We can manage after the natural disaster, at some level," he says.

However, a disaster potentially greater than the tsunami is threatening the long-term revival of the region. Tourism, which fuels 90 percent of the local economy, has plummeted.

The vice president of the local tourism association, Kitti Patanachinda, says the tsunami affected less than 10 percent of the infrastructure in Phuket but the fall in tourism has hurt 90 percent of the industry. Hotels are less than 30 percent full and restaurants and tour offices are empty.

"More than 40 percent of the businesses have laid off staff or implemented leave-without-pay," he says.

Small operators, like taxi drivers and food vendors, have been hit especially hard. Khun Wai and Khun Lenu operate a food stand on Phuket's famous Patong beach. Their business was washed away and they nearly drowned. They managed to re-open two weeks later only to face the new threat.

"Business is no good," says Mr. Lenu. "Some days, we have people and some days, a little, little bit. Why no good? Because no people."

Thai woman waits for customers in a line of chairs at Patong beach in Phuket province
Mr. Kitti says tour operators need to correct the widespread impression that Phuket was destroyed by the tsunami.

"People still misunderstand," he says. "They think the whole island of Phuket has been wiped out from the tsunami, but actually it's only 10 percent."

He says the Thai tourism industry needs to launch a media campaign to inform the international public that Phuket is open and still is a top destination. And he says hotels and tour operators must develop low-cost packages to draw tourists back. Finally, he says, the Thai government must provide more low-interest loans to businesses, otherwise they will not survive the six-month-long low season.