After the tsunami In Thailand, the tourist industry fights back

The December tsunami hit Thailand's tourist resorts and beaches hard, both in human terms as well as in lost incomes and livelihoods. Now, the tourist industry is making a comeback. Journalist Clifford Coonan looks at how the job situation is faring, and what the ILO and Thai authorities are doing to boost reconstruction.

Article | 11 April 2005

PHUKET, Thailand - The tsunami took an enormous human toll along the beaches of Thailand's tropical paradise of Phuket and the nearby mainland areas of Phangnga and Krabi. But it also had a devastating personal effect on people like Narong Chaidum, his family and six children who lost their income from two tourist shops on Naiyang beach here.

Within days Mr. Chaidum and his family - like many other entrepreneurs here - were trying to get back in business, often in ruined premises. Yet 3 months after the devastation, the longer-term effects on small tourism-dependant businesses still casts a shadow over businessmen like Mr. Chaidum.

The immediate after-effects of the tsunami - shattered resort hotels and fearful tourists - translated into a 90 per cent drop in hotel bookings. Recovery has been slow: January figures showed foreign arrivals in Thailand down 26 per cent on last year.

Up to an estimated 100,000 people in the tourism sector may have lost their jobs and early predictions were that as many as half a million jobs were in danger.

Chanin Donavanik, President of the Thai Hotel Association, says the hotels in the six Thai provinces hit by the tsunamis, particularly Phuket, Krabi and Phangnga, are still receiving cancellations and new reservations are slow in coming. Occupancy rates are hovering at around 10-15 per cent.

Employers are responding by placing employees on unpaid leave. Even those lucky enough to be working are living with drastic cuts in income, in some cases as much as 50 per cent, because of reduced hours and the loss of tips and service charges.

The overall economic toll is still being calculated. Phuket, Phangnga and Krabi alone accounted for around one quarter of Thailand's total annual tourist revenue. Currently, the Thai government is forecasting a dip of 0.5 per cent in gross domestic product (GDP) in 2005, although this may be offset by tourists re-booking to other places such as Chiang Mai or Koh Samui.

Yet one of the most surreal aspects of the tsunami aftermath is the extreme localization of the tsunami damage. On Phuket it is largely restricted to certain beach front areas, while other beaches were virtually unaffected. The Phuket Orchid Resort hotel in Tambon Karon is one of those that escaped the worst. Yet the resident manager, Vitaya Boonmee, acknowledges that they are suffering just as much as others.

"We'll be paid for up to three months but after that we'll have to find new jobs. Some hotels are closed because of damage, so some people have lost their jobs already. There are 35,000 or 40,000 hotel rooms on the island, so it will hit employment for the hotel staff if the tourists don't come back in [a few] months", says Mr. Boonmee.

Thinking in the long term

Still, despite the gloom people are trying to think longer term, writing off the bulk of this tourist season and concentrating on the future. Among the responses to the lost jobs are retraining and skills development.

In response the ILO is working with Thailand's Ministry of Labour to apply some of the ILO's materials and expertise to the affected provinces. These include programmes on starting and improving small businesses, retraining for newly-disabled workers, and infrastructure reconstruction techniques that create the maximum number of local jobs.

The ILO has also helped to organize a series of meetings and workshops to give policy-makers, NGO's, employers and workers the chance to express their views and discuss priorities and targets for recovery.

In addition many existing ILO projects are being extending to the affected areas, including programs to combat HIV/AIDS in the workplace, and to protect children and migrant workers from exploitation.

Particular attention is being paid to the problems of migrant workers. More than 120,000 were registered as working in the affected areas when the tsunami hit. Many lost their documents or jobs, and in the immediate aftermath, went into hiding for fear of being arrested or deported. The ILO is working with unions, employers and other UN agencies to assist them.

The ILO is also a partner in the UN's joint US$ 9 million rehabilitation programme for Thailand, which will cover livelihood, shelter and environment. It's estimated these recovery efforts will last three to five years. The ILO is executing a US$ 400,000 package for the UN Development Programme on restoring livelihoods across the informal and formal parts of the tourism industry.

The Thai government's own 20-billion-baht reconstruction package is already in place, and its effects are already trickling through.

Patong Beach was one of the worst hit areas on Phuket and scores of people were killed on the seafront there. But the three-kilometre long beach now looks better than before and some tourists are already back. The authorities in Patong are promising to try and maintain this clean new look by keeping it free of beach umbrellas, deck chairs and the overbuilding that were there before.

Some beach hawkers are also back. Bangkok is trying to keep things as simple as possible for those working on the beaches and have promised that anyone who was selling there before will be able to work there again once reconstruction takes place.

Not all the tsunami-hit areas will have it so easy. The backpacker paradise of Phi-Phi Island looks like it was picked up and dropped and is a truly heartbreaking place to visit.

Talk of rebuilding here is accompanied by fears among small traders that they will be frozen out by unscrupulous local property developers and criminals who will use the disaster as an excuse to claim a firm grip on the valuable beachfronts. The Thai government has said it recognizes the problem and has issued strong statements to keep things above board. The UN is working with local groups to facilitate community-based planning and mediate competing uses and access to beach front livelihoods.

The devastation at the up-market resort area of Khao Lak, one of the areas worst hit, makes it hard to imagine a big revival in tourism any time soon.

Khao Lak has developed a certain symbolism, a psychological association with horror. Around 50 hotels here were wrecked in the tsunami most of which had been open less than a year. Thousands of people were swept away by the great waves. Many Thais are now worried about ghosts.

Yet for the majority of locals the shock and trauma of the early days has been replaced by the knowledge that in order to survive they need to recreate some kind of normality.

"You didn't shut New York down after September 11, so why should you close us down now?" is a popular refrain, emphasizing that the tsunami was a unique, if terrible, act of nature, with no political repercussions.

Mr. Chaidum is one of those reciting this analogy. He points out that Thai tourism has been forced to deal with wars in the Middle East, the collapse of the baht, the 1997 Asian financial crisis, SARS and avian flu and had always bounced back.

"Hopefully next season will be as big as we expected this one to be. People know what Thai people are like, we are friendly with tourists, we help each other. You can copy a watch or a pair of jeans, but you can't copy Thai people", says Mr. Chaidum.