Thai tourism looks to Bali model

Thailand is launching a campaign this weekend, with a spiritual component, to lure back skittish travelers.

Keen for a dose of winter sunshine, Charlotte Midbom left her doubts behind in Sweden and brought her family of five to Thailand's Phuket island - one of the areas hit by the December tsunami. But her composure fell away on Monday as she found herself on her hotel balcony at midnight, frantically scanning the surf below for signs of another giant wave.

The danger passed, but Ms. Midbom says she won't be booking another family vacation in Thailand. "It was the worst night of my life. At the time, I told my husband, 'We must leave, we must go,' " she says. "Now we have decided to stay until Saturday ... but I don't think I will come back with my family."

For Thailand, Monday's panic from the magnitude-8.7 earthquake off the Indonesian coast was an unwelcome setback to their campaign to lure back foreign visitors, whose spending sustains islands like Phuket. It came as beach resorts were seeing the first inklings of a recovery in tourist numbers after a huge drop following the Dec. 26 tsunami that killed at least 5,000 people in Thailand. Occupancy rates that slumped to 10 percent in January - normally peak season - were approaching 50 percent of Phuket's 35,000 rooms.

Thai officials tried to put a positive spin on the fact that this time tourists had been warned, and emergency services were mobilized quickly.

"There will certainly be an effect on tourism, so we have to make sure that tourists know we have a good warning system. Japan often has earthquakes, yet it is still a major tourism destination," Udomsai Usawarangkura, Phuket's governor, told reporters.

Safety is only one of the concerns voiced by tourists to Thailand, though. To win back customers, say officials, Thailand needs to dispel the images of death and destruction that flashed around the world after Dec. 26, often long after affected resorts were repaired and back to normal. Hoteliers complain that international media overplayed the tragedy in Phuket, where fatalities were low - a reported 279 - and major damage limited to one beach.

Meanwhile in Indonesia, rescuers continued to look for survivors. Early Thursday, search crews pulled a 13-year-old girl from the rubble of a collapsed five-story building some 52 hours after the temblor. As many as 300 people have been found dead there in the past three days, and the number could rise as high as 500, according to officials. More than 126,000 people were killed in Indonesia by the December tsunami.

Thailand hopes to follow the lead of Bali, which had to repair its image after more than 200 people were killed in terrorist bombings in October 2002. Bali's tourist industry suffered two fallow years before arrivals picked up. Industry experts say Bali offers an example of how to turn around a disaster with targeted incentives for travelers and high-profile campaigns to address its recovery, complete with a spiritual component.

Now Thailand is preparing a series of ceremonies this weekend in Phuket to mark 100 days since the Dec. 26 tragedy. This is the end of the traditional mourning period for Buddhists in Thailand and other Asian countries. Hoteliers say such rituals are important to reassure tourists and comfort foreigners and Thais caught up in the tragedy.

"Bali did a good job of addressing this spiritual aspect, and whatever your religion this is very important, and for our staff as well," says James Batt, general manager of the Laguna Resort in Phuket.

Thai tourist officials last week held a special four-hour ceremony presided over by a South Korean medium to rid Phuket's Patong Beach of "bad spirits." Some Thai travelers also worry about ghosts, as do many local residents, say people here. So Phuket recently staged an overnight soccer contest on another affected beach to show jittery Thais they have nothing to fear.

But luring back Europeans, who make up the bulk of foreign visitors to Phuket, has been made harder by Monday's quake. "European tourists tend to be pragmatic. They want to know if the resort is clean, if the water is safe, is it tidy?" says John Koldowski of the Pacific Asia Travel Association. "And there's the niggling concern that they won't feel comfortable relaxing on a beach when people have suffered so much."

Midbom says her friends in Sweden had warned her to avoid Phuket, claiming that much of the island was in ruins. She had her own reasons to stay away: two family friends died in nearby Khao Lak in the December tsunami.

Finally she booked two weeks in a nonbeachfront hotel and requested a room on the 17th floor. Lingering over breakfast last weekend, she expressed sympathy for Thais who depend on tourism for a living. "The best thing we can do is to visit Thailand as tourists, because they need our money," she says.

Down the hill on Karon beach, Prayat Patiem calls out to the trickle of tourists who pass by his beachfront restaurant. Business is slow, perhaps the slowest in the 21 years since he opened here, he says. Only six people sit at the dozen or so tables, compared to the 100-plus he normally entertains.

Prayat says he's laid off half his staff and has little hope of breaking even this year after the tsunami crashed through his restaurant. "This season I lose everything - my business, my deck chairs. This is a free season," he says, laughing.

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