Empty beach chairs at the Cape Panwa Hotel in Thailand yesterday show the problems the resort faces as tourists cancel visits.

Thais spared
from disaster
want tourists back

PHUKET, Thailand » At the Cape Panwa Hotel on a hilltop overlooking a sheltered cove on Phuket Island, a three-piece lounge band plays a Johnny Cash song to an empty room.

It seems strangely appropriate.

On assignment

Star-Bulletin reporter Craig Gima is traveling through Southeast Asia to report on relief efforts.

"I don't want to be alone," the singer croons. "Let me make it through the night."

More than three weeks after the Dec. 26 tsunami, occupancy at this 246 room hotel is about 15 percent. Normally at this time the hotel would be full.

The occupancy rate would be in the single digits without the U.S. military, which is using the hotel to house service members and government contractors helping in the relief effort.

"We need people from all over the world to come to Thailand," said hotel general manager Poomiphat "Tom" Nayanukroh. "If you want to support the Thai people, if you want to help, please come."

"It's so empty," said concierge Pananiwee Mangsuree as she rushes to greet a new guest.

"We were lucky no tsunami," she said. The shape of the bay and its location on the opposite side of the Indian Ocean coast spared the Cape Panwa Hotel and many other hotels on the island's higher ground. "Not so lucky for business right now."

Mangsuree and many other hotel employees are taking early vacations beginning today to stave off layoffs.

A band played to an empty dance floor at the Cape Panwa Hotel in Thailand. Occupancy at the 246-room property has dipped to about 15 percent after the Dec. 26 tsunami.

Like many Thais, she's thankful for all the international assistance that's been offered to her country.

"Everybody's come to help," said Mangsuree, whose parents, aunt and cousin were lost when the tsunami hit Phi Phi Island, where the four were vacationing.

Nayanukroh said only about 10 percent of the hotels on Phuket were affected by the tsunami.

When asked what the industry is doing to woo tourists back, Nayanukroh shared a packet of materials from the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

The authority has just entered the second phase of a three-phase plan to win tourists back to the Andaman Coast, where most of the tsunami damage and deaths occurred.

The effort will involve encouraging Thais to travel domestically to the area. According to the Bangkok Post, the tourism authority is offering pilgrimage tour packages for Thais to come to Phuket in February to mark the 50-day anniversary of the tsunami, a significant date for Buddhists.

Marketing surveys are underway for a "Save Andaman" public relations campaign, including regular media briefings to update the progress of the recovery, media tours, and travel agent visits to show areas that are restored and operating normally.

Travel trade representatives from Japan are expected here Monday, followed by European representatives.

"In the long run the tourists will come back to Phuket," Nayanukroh said. "But we need it now," he said, wondering if the hotel will be able to survive until tourism returns.

In a dining room, Joni Rush and her husband, who flew here from England, are finishing dinner.

"There was no way we were not going to come," she said. "They need the tourism."

Rush brought crayons and school supplies to distribute to tsunami orphans.

"We couldn't come out here on a jolly knowing people needed stuff," she added.

So far it's been a great vacation, Rush said, except for one incident. While boating, they came across a pair of shorts in the water, possibly washed out to sea by the tsunami. The captain checked the pockets; there was no identification.

"That was sad," she said.

In the dining room, less than a dozen customers are having dinner as the band plays; the dance floor remains bare.

After one set, the band packs up and goes home.

Buddhist monks from the Asoke community of Bangkok walked through the tsunami-devastated community of Ban Nam Khem, Thailand, today as part of a pilgrimage. More than 5,000 people are listed killed in Thailand and more than 3,000 are still listed as missing as a result of the Dec 26 quake-triggered tsunami.

U.N. meeting tackles
tsunami threat

KOBE, Japan » The warning system worked perfectly. From sensors far offshore, Japanese meteorologists detected a tsunami headed toward the southern island of Ishigaki in March 2002 and quickly warned residents of the possible danger.

That's when things went wrong. Instead of heading to safety in the hills, islanders went to the beach to watch.

Fortunately, no one was hurt. But the incident recounted yesterday by a Japanese expert at the opening of a United Nations conference illustrated the complexities of the meeting's most urgent task: laying the groundwork for a warning system that might have saved lives in southern Asia's tsunami disaster.

The Dec. 26 catastrophe was expected to dominate the five-day World Conference on Disaster Reduction, with experts and diplomats debating relief aid, the threat of disease and reconstruction in the vast zone of destruction.

The conference opened with a moment of silence for the 170,000 people killed in 11 countries. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in a videotaped greeting, urged participants to make countries "more resilient" to natural disasters.

"The tsunami was an unprecedented, global natural disaster," Annan said. "I think we are already seeing an unprecedented, global response."

In a series of meetings and workshops this week, experts plan to discuss such matters as protection of vital facilities like schools, hospitals and seawalls, construction of earthquake-proof buildings, strengthening of communication networks and steps to limit environmental damage.

At the top of the agenda, however, was setting the stage for a tsunami early-warning network for the Indian Ocean similar to the one that now protects the Pacific. The U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has proposed a system that would cost $30 million and go into operation by mid-2006.

"What we need to have here is a strong commitment by countries and agencies," said Jan Egeland, U.N. undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, adding that he hoped such systems could be extended to all disaster-prone regions in the next 10 years.

Egeland and others, however, acknowledged a warning system alone is not enough. Also needed are quake-proof seawalls of sufficient height, detailed hazard maps showing danger areas, well-defined evacuation routes and shelters, a way to alert endangered people and education of coastal people about the dangers.

Fumihiko Imamura, a tsunami expert from Tohoku University, showed a videotape of Ishigaki islanders who gathered along the coast to witness the tsunami three years ago when they should have evacuated. While no one was injured, he said the case showed the limitations of warning systems.

"No matter the amount of information, the residents have to understand the importance of evacuation," he told a symposium on tsunami.

Another top concern is the communication of warnings from government agencies to people on the ground. Many of the areas hit by the Dec. 26 tsunami suffer from deep poverty and lack basic education and communication networks.

Residents should be educated about warning signs of impending tsunami -- such as offshore earthquakes and suddenly receding seas -- so they will know to evacuate on their own, said Laura Kong, director of UNESCO's International Tsunami Information Center in Honolulu.

"Many governments are talking about early warning systems. What is most important is to have an aware population, so that every citizen along a coastline knows what a tsunami is, knows the warning signs," she said.

The case of Japan is instructive of the challenges faced. Despite the earthquake-prone country's long experience with tsunami and its highly advanced early warning system, Japan still lacks many of the essential elements of an effective defense.

Only 10 percent of local governments in Japan have hazard maps. Nearly a third of seawalls along vulnerable coasts have not been tested for proper height and two-thirds of the breakwaters have not been checked for resilience against quakes.

It is unclear what shape the proposed Indian Ocean tsunami-warning system will take. An Asian regional summit next month also is expected to take up the topic.

In the meantime, Japan and the United States, the countries with the most advanced sensor systems in place, could provide tsunami warnings to countries around the Indian Ocean until their own system is in place, a Japanese official said last week.

East-West Center Tsunami Relief page
American Red Cross Hawaii
Red Cross survivor locator
Pacific Tsunami Warning Center

U.S. Pacific Command

E-mail to City Desk


© Honolulu Star-Bulletin -- https://archives.starbulletin.com