Tourism hit but Phuket is 'open for business'

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 January, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 January, 2005, 12:00am

Tour companies are desperate for customers on largely unscathed island

Locals and expatriates alike in Phuket are aching to get the message out that most of the island is open for business and unaffected by the tsunami.

Much of the island's economy relies on tourism but tour guides, transport companies, shops, restaurants and hotels have been deprived of high-season earnings in the aftermath of the disaster. More than 90 per cent of Phuket escaped the devastation.

Many tour guides have now become taxi drivers, waiting outside rescue centres to transport foreign embassy staff, relatives of the missing, aid workers and journalists.

Tour operator Malika Rutthapatham of Malika Tours, who relied on Hong Kong tourists for at least 20 per cent of her earnings, said the peak season normally meant fully booked tours for at least three months. Yesterday she had no bookings.

One tour guide, Mr Poo, said he had been relying on peak-season earnings to pay his 20,000 baht (HK$3,970) monthly expenses for his car and house. He had planned to spend New Year's Eve in Chiang Mai with friends but had to cancel the trip to save money.

But one luxury residential property agent in Phuket displayed on his desk 24 new inquiries received from overseas buyers since December 26 - the day the tsunami devastated the west coast. Two of the inquiries were from Hong Kong people.

'Business is fine,' said Nick Anthony, who lived in Hong Kong for 11 years before falling in love with Phuket and moving there in 2002.

'I've had three reservation agreements signed totalling more than US$4 million just this week - post-tsunami - and no cancellations on the 12 contracts I have that are pending due diligence.'

Mr Anthony said he had fielded calls from a few buyers making inquiries about properties based on exaggerated or inaccurate media reports. One had read that Surin Beach had been wiped out, he said, contrary to the fact that it is business as usual there.

'We need to get people to realise that 95 per cent of Phuket is fine. To those who want to help, I tell them to visit Phuket or buy the properties they were intending to buy because Phuket needs tourism and it needs jobs.'

Reconstruction and cleaning work is proceeding rapidly. Patong Beach, which looked like a series of bombs had gone off there last week, looked remarkably better yesterday, with most beachfront shops seemingly undergoing simple renovation work.

Tour guide Paradon Mingpejarn, who has been volunteering to clear the debris from hard-hit areas of Bangtao Beach, reasoned that the sooner he cleaned up the area, the fewer disastrous images the media would be able to transmit overseas.

'I was initially helping to find bodies and now am working on cleaning up the beaches so Phuket can get back to normal, otherwise, the economy will go down and everybody will lose their jobs,' Mr Mingpejarn said as he worked alongside volunteers from England and Australia.

'I think we can fix most things in one month because so many people are working so hard and so well together.'

His optimism is characteristic of the faith most people in Phuket have that this area will be the quickest to recover.