Thais hope the tourists return

/ Source: NBC News

Even as the death toll here passes 5,200, and with more than 3,700 still missing, Thais are starting to look to the future. Ten days ago the economy here was booming. Now it could be stopped in its tracks — and the future rests on reviving the devastated region.

On Wednesday, there was a rare happy story for southern Thailand when two humpback dolphins, trapped in a lagoon after being swept inland by the tsunami, were returned to the sea.

Otherwise, the region has little else to cheer about. 

The beaches, which should now be at the peak season, are almost deserted. The sea is now tranquil, but there are few people around to notice the beauty.

The serene beaches make for a beautiful image, but the emptiness is a disastrous one for a country where tourism is the economy's life blood.

Empty beaches not good for business
Expatriate American John Gray runs a sea-kayaking business on the island of Phuket. He said if the tourists don’t come back, half a million people’s livelihoods could be at stake.

“Our society would disintegrate. Basically Phuket would die. We are totally dependant on tourism,” he said.

Some of the locations that contributed to a $10 billion holiday industry – like the now destroyed area of Khao Lak — will have to be rebuilt after the tsunami.

Ko Phi Phi, the setting of the Leonardo Di Caprio movie "The Beach," now looks more like a war zone than a paradise island and will have to be rebuilt from scratch.

Hotels need to rebuild
But the Thai government says most of the regions hotels will be fixed within months.

The Marriott is already almost back to normal, but still cancellations are coming in at a time when there would normally be a waiting list for rooms.

“These are peak weeks. In fact the first day of the peak week was the day the tsunami broke,” said Craig Smith, general manager of the JW Marriott Resort and Spa.

If it were a normal season things would be different. “I would be at 100 percent [occupancy] at premium rates!” Smith said.

In 2003, 360,000 Americans visited Phuket. The concern here is that that this year they may be frightened away by images of the past.

Slow process of moving on
Also on Wednesday, Buddhists, Muslims and Christians joined together to light 10,000 candle lanterns in a memorial to the thousands who died in the tsunami disaster.

More than 1,000 saffron-robed Buddhist monks chanted prayers for the dead after Christian and Muslim leaders paid their own respects in a sunset ceremony at a soccer stadium in Phuket.

"We have come to make merit for the deceased," said Vince Dhammasuddho, 26, an American Buddhist from Georgia who has been living in Thailand for the last seven months. "Hopefully by passing on this light, we will pass on world peace and love."

The ceremony was just another part of the process for people to move on.

“The perception is that this is a death place. And it is certainly not. We really need to get people back here,” said Gray.

For many in Phuket, the best thing that Americans can do to help is come back.