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Turn off the TV and travel

A tsunami of well-informed travellers will make all the difference

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by Vijay Verghese

SEE ALSO Resort Update |  Phuket Video Jan 05

Vijay VergheseSIMONE BARON is the picture of incandescent health and cheer. She smiles at her husband Joachim and ruffles son Benedict’s hair. Tanning on a picture-postcard beach, this is the quintessential German family on vacation. Except this is no ordinary vacation, and this is no ordinary beach. The Baron family arrived in Phuket, Thailand, on 29 December, 2004, fully aware a tsunami had pulverised the coast on Boxing Day.

Fed a gruesome 24-hour diet of TV horror, friends did their best to dissuade them. “They warned us of disease, dead bodies and wreckage,” says Simone, “but we had checked and heard that things were getting back to normal and The Chedi was fine.”

{Befuddled TV viewers bewailing the fate of Chiang Mai, Pattaya or Bali need only peruse a decent atlas to ascertain all's well

Phuket scenes first week January 2005: Life returns to normal

They made the right choice. Asia’s holiday coast needs more travellers with the money and the moxie to make a difference. Befuddled TV viewers bewailing the fate of places like Chiang Mai, Pattaya, Bali and Goa, need only peruse a decent map to ascertain all is well. Tourist dollars offer a valuable life-sustaining injection that Asia cannot do without. Importantly, travel dollars percolate straight into the local economy where help is most needed, rather than vanishing into administrative blotting paper with just a fraction of the money reaching intended parties, as is often the case with international aid organisations.

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The silence that hangs over Khao Lak is overwhelming. The beaches are relentlessly beautiful and the turquoise seas offer no hint of tragedy, until the eye turns inland to take in vast kilometres of coast razed to the ground, homes and hotels strewn about like matchsticks, as if a giant hand had swept everything aside. This is a wounded wasteland enlivened only by the drone of army lorries and lumbering earth-moving equipment.

Just 70km south, Phuket, which escaped largely unscathed save for the beach areas of Patong, Kalim (whose hotels are all on the hill) and Karon, is keenly ready for business. Along the shoreline of the plush Laguna Phuket development, stalls selling gewgaws and T-shirts have sprung back to life, once again obscuring the view and raising a din. Tacky and unwelcome as they may be, the stalls and jet-skis are a sign of hope, an indication that commerce, like water, is an unstoppable force.

Patong Beach displays a distinctly split personality. Along the battered shoreline the road has been cleared and neat stacks of debris await removal. Death stalked this shore on Boxing Day when the sea reared up and made an unannounced call. But walk fifty metres inland and it’s a different story. Bars, restaurants, pubs and that vital barometer of Thai resort health, pirate DVD stalls, have made a speedy comeback. All the clamour and clutter is there. All that’s missing is the tourists.

{Cruelly though, it is crisis, not plodding status quo, that brings opportunity, hope and new beginnings to this beleaguered land

The tragedy is inescapable, the scale of the crisis immense. Cruelly though, it is crisis – not status quo – that brings opportunity, hope, and new beginnings. Faced with a clean slate, countries like Thailand can now reassess and enforce master plans, and place strict limits on development, especially in protected areas. Phi Phi, once reserved solely for day-trippers, has long been overrun. In Patong it is time to revitalise the promenade, segregate – or zone – jet-skis and marginalise the mafia.

Khao Lak devastation first week January 2005; Kamala Beach

Adrian Zecha, who started Amanresorts with the Amanpuri in Phuket, sees this as an opportunity to turn Patong (the hapless victim of the media tsunami blitz) into a showcase Riviera, a St Tropez of the east, with grand piazzas, green lungs, and proper sewage treatment and disposal. He proposes a government fund to offer soft loans to shops, hotels and restaurants along Patong Beach Road that can then be relocated. This gives the bay breathing space literally and figuratively. “Over time this will lead to gentrification of the area as businesses are forced to smarten up,” says Zecha.

It is also time for Asia’s tourism industry to link hands on a common platform and reorder priorities. Among the first casualties of natural disaster and war, is travel, in particular, long-haul travel. It is time then to rediscover Asia and – in a burst of good neighbourliness, as indeed marketing common sense – to redirect promotional dollars within the region to secure high-spending frequent travellers. It is mainland visitors in Hongkong who top the per capita spending charts, not wealthy travellers from Europe or America. It is true that Asia has yet to discover Asia. Yet, there is no better time than now.

There is always hope. Take the 20-day-old baby discovered floating safely in the Indian Ocean on a mattress, or the baby boy born in the Andamans (aptly named Tsunami) as the flood waters peaked. Or the orphaned East African baby hippo now adopted by a giant turtle whose maternal instincts were aroused. Or the stray cats rescued in Phi Phi. Amidst all the suffering, there are tales of incredible courage and kindness.

{Travel dollars offer a means of continued livelihood for many. Then, after the mourning, there can be a morning after

The challenge for Asia is to convert the groundswell of sympathy that has brought the world together, into usable hard cash (in addition to well-meant pledges) that can fuel longterm recovery after the immediate Bandaid funds are gone. That will bring the lights - and smiles - back to Asia's traumatised holiday coast. Then, after the mourning, there can be a morning after. Travel dollars cannot bring back life, but they will ensure longterm livelihood for many. And that must be the ultimate aim of concerned persons everywhere. Spend your money where it can do the most good. Travel safe. But do travel. It is time for the Simone Barons to stand up and be counted.

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