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Return to Paradise

Phuket Diarist

At night, the waterfront road at Patong, the most famous beach on the island of Phuket in southern Thailand, resembles a slightly seedy Riviera. All along the strip, paunchy foreign men toss down beers at open-air bars or wander into back alleys with male and female Thai prostitutes. Neon-lit fast-food joints and massage parlors throb with Thai and foreign customers. On the beach itself, a few elderly women sweep up debris from the previous night's parties.

Across Phuket, there are few hints that, only last December, southern Thailand was hit by one of the worst natural disasters in history: the Asian tsunami. In a few places, you can still see shards of broken glass, and several hotels remain boarded up. But some 80 percent of hotels across Phuket are now operating normally. At Patong, entrepreneurial Thais sell DVDs of footage from that fateful day, while other vendors offer t-shirts mocking Thailand's bad luck to be hit by SARS, bird flu, and the tsunami in the space of several years. Up-island, a new shopping mall hosts a Starbucks that lures hip young Thais. As someone who was in Thailand during the tsunami and saw its destruction, I found Phuket's recovery truly amazing. What's more, it offers hope for New Orleans.

In the days after the tsunami, which killed more than 5,000 people in Thailand, Phuket and other parts of the Thai coast were plagued by problems like those now facing the United States. A slow initial response from Thailand's national government left immediate recovery to local officials, who were unprepared to deal with the scope of the problem. In Thailand, this meant bodies piling up on southern beaches, rather than citizens stranded in domes and armed gangs roaming the streets, but it posed a danger nonetheless, as the rotting corpses could quickly spread disease. Many of my Thai friends quickly blamed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra for the national government's failure to respond.

But Thaksin demonstrated that a leader could recover from initial missteps. Unlike President Bush, who at first spent relatively little time on the ground in New Orleans and Mississippi, Thaksin quickly flew south and made himself the center of attention, allowing Thais to take comfort in his presence. Thaksin was constantly shown on national television consoling distraught villagers while promising quick and serious recovery efforts-- something that clearly helped him politically but that also reassured Thais.

And, unlike Bush, who praised the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Thaksin demanded accountability. Doubters like myself wondered whether any heads would actually roll, but the prime minister ordered an investigation into the lack of warning about the wave and punished the meteorologists who failed to see it coming. Then he created a national committee to develop a better early-warning system.

After these initial efforts, Thailand also did other things right. Like New Orleans, much of southern Thailand, a region of lush beaches, had been dependent on tourism for economic growth. But, after the tsunami, says Jutamas Wisansing, an expert on tourism at Bangkok's Assumption University, southerners realized they not only had to work hard to bring visitors back but also had to diversify their tourism base, in case former Phuket regulars never returned. Indeed, I watched Thai monks perform a kind of public exorcism designed to reassure repeat Asian travelers worried about ghosts on the island. But, to target new visitors, the Thai government has announced a duty-free zone in Phuket, and airlines flying to southern Thailand have slashed their rates, putting Phuket within easier reach of lower-budget foreign travelers. Southern Thailand has also used promotions to reach out to local tourists, rather than only focusing on foreigners and wealthy Thais from other parts of the country. These could be lessons for New Orleans, which may have to diversify beyond its traditional convention and party industry if it is to revive its tourism economy.

Meanwhile, Thailand's strong civil society--the kingdom has an alphabet soup of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)--took on a major post-tsunami role. The government worked with Coastal Habitats and Resources Management, a multinational project to help affected villagers obtain the loans needed to create and manage new businesses. Other organizations have rebuilt homes across the south and aided southern Thais, who had previously relied upon tourism and fishing, to find new occupations--a vital service in a place like New Orleans, to which some industries, such as tourism and natural gas, might never return.

Thailand's post-tsunami recovery is hardly perfect. North of Phuket, another area called Khao Lak, which was leveled by the tsunami, still shows signs of severe damage. Thaksin himself is a flawed leader, a man with strong authoritarian tendencies who too often refuses to listen to counsel and thus remains vulnerable to making rash decisions about reconstruction. Despite efforts to diversify the tourism sectors, visits to Phuket are still down some 40 percent from before the tsunami. "We're still running below a normal season, though we won't know for sure until high season [this winter]," Megumi Yoshikawa, co-owner of a leading Phuket dive shop, told me. In some places, Thai families have not been able to return to their land because they cannot prove residency. Debt is rising: One Thai NGO estimates that, because of the tsunami, fishermen in Phang Nga, an area near Phuket, now owe nearly $1,000 on average, a sizable sum in a developing country.

Still, across the kingdom, Thais seem relatively upbeat about the future. In Phang Nga, residents of one hard-hit community proudly showed local reporters their new homes, built by Thai NGOs. Many local tour operators I quizzed thought much of their business would recover by the peak season, though they clearly worried it would not. Some Thais even consider themselves lucky--compared with people in New Orleans. Perhaps they should.

Joshua Kurlantzick is a special correspondent for The New Republic.

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