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Phuket moves from recovery to prosperity

NBC News Correspondent Charles Sabine reported from Phuket, Thailand in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami. On a recent visit he saw that not only is the island recovering from the aftermath of the disastrous tsunami,  it's prospering.
Sea kayaking in the Andaman Sea, off of Phuket, Thailand, with John Gray tours.
Sea kayaking in the Andaman Sea, off of Phuket, Thailand, with John Gray tours.John Gray Tours
/ Source: NBC News

PHUKET, Thailand — NBC News Correspondent Charles Sabine reported from Phuket, Thailand in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami. On a recent visit he saw that not only is the island recovering from the aftermath of the disastrous tsunami, it's prospering.

John Gray asked his guests to wait in the boat while he went ashore to talk to the ghosts.

He was really sorry, he told the spirits, but time must move on. 

That done, a party of tourists was helped ashore to the beach where a year and a half earlier several fishermen had perished in the now infamous tsunami.

Gray, 61, is an expatriate from California who runs legendary tours through the islands of the Andaman Sea and has lived among the Buddhist temples of Phuket long enough to respect the afterlife. He also knows that tourism is the island’s life blood, and that the fishermen knew it too.

But now, Phuket is well and truly on its way back.  And it is looking to the example of those on the island who excel to understand how to make the future work best.

Moving past recovery
At one of the island’s leading hotels, the JW Marriott Resort and Spa, occupancy is racing back towards the 100 percent the exquisite paradise enjoyed before Christmas 2004. The hotel, whose glorious sunsets on its 12 miles of unspoilt Mai Khao Beach have been enjoyed by Presidents Clinton and Bush, is, in fact, expanding; adding 80 new villas.

“The demand is there, and the market is there,” said John Webb, the resort’s general manager. “The Asian people are resilient, as are the Americans, who are 20 percent of our guests. An important point is that anyone coming here wouldn’t know anything had happened.”

That to a large extent is due to a bit of poetic justice on the day of the big wave. When the resort was built in 2002, a strip of land was left between the hotel resort grounds and the beach that is part of the Siranath Marine Park in order to help protect the endangered giant leatherback turtles which nest on the beach.

When the other hotels on the island, perilously close to the ocean, were destroyed by the waves, the JW Marriott was left largely unscathed because of its environmental consideration.

There are other lessons to be learned from the JW Marriott by hotels being rebuilt along Phuket’s coastline. In addition to its exquisite design and perfect setting, which has brought it numerous awards, there is the Marriott’s realization that Thailand’s greatest resource is not the sea, weather or tropical landscape, but its people.

Its sensitivity to the natural Thai charm is not an exploitation, but rather compatibility.  Thai culture oozes through the hotel, from the music played across the infinity pool at sunset to the cooking school in the morning.  

‘Business better than usual’
A few miles inland, the Blue Canyon Golf Resort is also expanding and showing the way. 

The resort, which was the venue for Tiger Woods’ victory in the Johnny Walker Classic of 1998, saw a 50 percent drop in its bookings after the tsunami. 

Now not only are their bookings back to 100 percent, boosted by U.S. ex-pats flocking from the boom cities of China and Singapore for golf weekends, but a seven figure dollar sum is being invested in a new "Lakes Course" opening in November.

Tim Haddon, the Blue Canyon Director of Golf, is confidence about the future. “It’s not business as usual; its business better than usual,” said Haddon.

One of the reasons — the introduction of a spa approaching the standard of the Marriott to cater to women who may not find golf enough to occupy their senses for a whole visit. The rest of the island — take note — bachelor parties will not be enough to sustain a real future, and certainly don’t provide the biggest bucks, either.

Gray understands better than most that the tsunami experience has produced lessons that Phuket will ignore at its peril.

When I interviewed him in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, he told me that there would be two waves that would hit the island. The first from the earthquake that struck off the coast of Sumatra, and the second from the minds of those who would not come to the island because of an illogical fear that it would be dangerous in some way.

“The second wave has passed,” he told me, explaining that with his tours back to 60 percent, his overdraft had shrunk from $60,000 to about $12,000.

Gray has produced a thesis on the environmental lessons to be learned from the tsunami.He says he realizes that living in coexistence with their surroundings is not only morally correct, but good long term financial planning for the island as a whole.

In a field where he has many imitators, his is the only company that gives proper training in first aid and environmental consideration.  As a result, he can charge slightly more that his competitors (by about $2), and thus give long term training to his staff.

Satisfied customers
A result of this foresight, he has truly satisfied customers, like Stephen Brady, 40, who hails from Washington.  Brady described the $80 dollars he spent on Gray’s Starlight Tour of the lagoons of Hong Island as “essential.”

As for the rest of his visit with his colleague from Booze-Allen Hamilton, Katrina, 32, they said the warmth and friendliness of the Thai people made the greatest impression on them. 

And any negative points? Only one, he says, with what was approaching an air of disappointment. “We’ve been looking for signs of the tsunami, and there are none.”