PHUKET, Thailand – Of the 12 million tourists who visited Thailand this year, many headed straight to the gems of the south to soak up the sun along tropical beaches, dive on spectacular coral reefs and indulge in a languid, sometimes lascivious, lifestyle.
Now, they're scurrying away in droves, reeling from a disaster of epic proportions which left five-star resorts and $3-a-night bungalows in ruins and polluted the air with the smell of rotting corpses.
Sunday's earthquake-powered tsunamis dealt a sharp blow to Thailand's cash cow — the flourishing tourism industry which collects about a third of its income from the beaches and isles of the Andaman Sea.
As a start, about 1.2 million foreigners are likely to cancel their trips to Thailand, costing the industry some $750 million, according to the Association of Thai Travel Agents (search). Others predict arrivals will fall by as much as 2 million in coming months.
Losses will be incurred by Thai and some international airlines, hotels and restaurants as well as an army of small-time entrepreneurs catering to tourists, from beachside noodle vendors to masseuses.
Tourism and Sports Minister Sonthaya Khunpluen estimated that some 200,000 employees in the tourism sector, the country's no. 1 foreign exchange earner, were expected to lose their jobs due to the disaster.
"We're finished. There are no tourists, there are no fishermen," said Teeraphon Pramong, the owner of a pier north of Phuket (search) who bought an average of one ton of seafood a day from local fishermen for sale to hotels at the prime tourist area of Khao Lak (search).
The pier was wiped out, his suppliers are dead and the luxury resorts of Khao Lak have been so devastated that some may never be rebuilt, he said.
Nearby, Choomphon Plaiguam, whose five boats ferried about 100 tourists a day for snorkeling trips to offshore islands, said he would switch to farming if the foreigners stopped coming. He had been fully booked through the New Year's holiday season, he said, but everyone has canceled in recent days.
Foreigners also are suffering, including those in the lucrative diving business. The Andaman Sea is a world class diving destination.
"I have to come back. I have more than 100,000 pounds ($192,750) investment in this place," said Steve Goff of Reigate, England, standing amid the wreckage of his Barracuda Dive Center on Phi Phi Island.
At least three bodies were laying in his classroom and the only thing left standing was a mannequin of a diver dressed in an old-fashioned diving suit.
"Even though we can quickly rebuild hotels, it will take some time to draw back tourists to the affected areas," Thailand's Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said while touring the disaster area this week.
He noted that the ecology which draws tourists to southern Thailand had been severely damaged and popular destinations like Khao Lak and Phi Phi were leveled.
But some voiced optimism, noting that a number of restaurants were already packed a day after the waves struck and that anything-goes nightlife on Phuket's Patong beach was throbbing Tuesday night.
In stark contrast to apocalyptic scenes, some resort areas remained surprisingly unscathed or sustained only minor damage. The tourism minister said that only about 40 of the more than 200 hotels on Phuket Island were damaged.
"I think everyone is going to be surprised just how fast the Thais put their restaurants, bungalows and beach bars back up," said John Everingham, the Australian publisher of Phuket Magazine. "And if tourists realize that the next tsunami this size might be 1,000 years away, they might also come back sooner than people think. Tsunamis are not catching or lingering like SARS or terrorists."
Some tourists, stunned by the tragedy, said they would never return but others said they're eager to come back, citing the great help received from both Thai officials and private individuals, including money, clothes, free flights and hotel rooms on the house.
"The Thai people are incredible," said Carl Michael Bergman, 40, of Stockholm, Sweden, whose 18-month-old son, Hannes, had reportedly been rescued by a Thai princess. "I have been to Thailand seven times, and this time only confirmed what I know about Thai people — that they are so generous and caring."
The tsunami rolled in just days after the Thai government trumpeted tourism's success in 2004, citing an increase of 20 percent in arrivals over the previous year and $9.8 billion in income despite the outbreak of bird flu and Muslim terrorism in southern Thailand.
"Thailand is very hot right now," said Juthmas Siriwan, who heads the Tourism Authority of Thailand.