Tourism in Post-Tsunami Phuket

Tourism in Post-Tsunami Phuket

John Gray Sea Canoe


By John Gray, John Gray's Sea Canoe


On December 26, 2004, Phuket shook so softly the five-minute tremor passed without notice - except for a handful of earthquake-experienced folks on solid ground who detected the subtle low frequency vibrations. Within ten minutes, the online USGS shake report showed the epicenter at 200km southwest of Banda Aceh, a 70-degree turn to Phuket, which led some to assume that Phuket was safe.


Unfortunately, throughout South Thailand the word "tsunami" was largely unknown. Frantic calls to chain hotels warning against tsunami went unheeded, while the sea kayakers and Moken sea gypsies who had the knowledge of nature’s warning immediately left their villages, which they knew would not survive the tsunami.


In Phuket a total of 260 people were killed by the tsunami. Of those, 110 were foreigners, including 55-60 tourists. Although Phuket did sustain damage from the tsunami, the number of victims was significantly lower than other affected communities in Indonesia and Sri Lanka, and it did not take too long before people’s lives had returned to normal in Phuket. However, the world’s spotlight focused on Phuket due to the large number of international tourists affected by the tsunami. The media painted the false image that Phuket was seriously damaged and dangerous to visit, scaring away international tourists. In nine months after the quake, Phuket lost US$800 million in tourism revenues.


Despite media messages and government travel warnings that reported otherwise, most infrastructure and public services in Phuket were not disrupted by the tsunami. Tourists from Australia, New Zealand, and America who returned to Phuket a few months after the tsunami confirmed that Phuket was fit to receive visitors, and that it needed international tourists to continue coming in order to sustain local economies.


Moreover, Phuket suffered a "second disaster" from many disorganized and largely ineffective aid agencies, some of which were criticized for their insensitive and misdirected evangelical efforts. Many field workers noted, therefore, that it was far more helpful for the local communities to have visitors spending money in Phuket than international donors giving money to those organizations.


What happened in Phuket following the tsunami provided lessons for the international community:

  • Proper understanding of the workings of tsunami is necessary to avoid fatalities; most deaths from tsunami in Phuket could have prevented with better awareness of tsunami.
  • More countries should adopt early warning systems to inform the threats of earthquakes or tsunami – such as the ones implemented in Hawaii and Japan.
  • Media’s responsibility in providing accurate and appropriate information on the situations of the communities affected by a disaster must be made clearer.
  • International tourists make an important impact on the lives of people in the host communities.

This article is based on a report by John Gray, owner of John Gray's Sea Canoe, which provides high-quality tropical ecotourism and adventure tour experiences in Southeast Asia. Starting with South Thailand in January 1989, John Gray is SE Asia's original sea kayak explorer and inventor of the Tidal Technology that allows entry into limestone tidal sea caves. John Gray's SeaCanoe gives guides a swimming test and subsequent lifeguard, sea kayaking and natural history training, and continues to promote professional standards and environmental planning. 


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