|Tourists relax at Patong beach in Phuket, Dec. 2, 2006 (AFP Photo)|
Tourists are finally returning to Thailand's Andaman coast two years after the devastating tsunami, but any attempts to commercialise the tragedy are being snubbed by holidaymakers.
The "tsunami-survivor" T-shirts go unworn, and even the tasteful memorials are apparently being ignored by visitors who want to forget about the waves which claimed 5,400 lives in Thailand, roughly half of whom were tourists.
"They are either respectful, they don't care, or they just want to get on that beach and get into that pina colada," says Gregory Anderson, general manager of Le Meridien's resort in Khao Lak.
Tourist arrivals are now almost back to pre-tsunami levels after a dismal couple of years following the December 26, 2004 disaster, which ravaged the idyllic beaches and resorts in Phuket, Krabi and Phang Nga provinces.
At Le Meridien, where the waves killed seven guests and inflicted 18 million dollars worth of damage, sales have exceeded expectations.
"Profitability is up by 22 percent on what it was before the tsunami," Anderson tells AFP.
But while some large hotels have made a spectacular recovery, buoyed by sophisticated marketing campaigns and discounted rooms, smaller business owners -- many of whom lost more than just money -- are struggling.
Prateep Potsakul, 32, and his sister Paongping Pengtny, 36, run clothing stalls on Phuket's busy Patong beach. On the day of the tsunami, Prateep recalls running into the hills and leaving everything behind.
"The stall, everything was gone," he says, looking out at the beach where jet skis now zip past and rows of deckchairs accommodate tanning tourists.
Prateep says he had to borrow money from the bank to try and rebuild his business. But he tries not to dwell on the money because his sister Paongping's six-year-old son was killed in the tsunami.
"I just lost my shop," he says. "She lost her shop, her boy, her house. Sometimes she is crazy and she cries."
But prospects may be looking up for Prateep and Paongping. Think-tank Kasikorn Research estimates that tourism arrivals in Phuket will rise 87 percent to 4.7 million this year, and predicts they will rise again to 5.2 million in 2007.
Some tourists like Ellis Henriksen, a 61-year-old retiree from Denmark, come to Phuket because they want to help the community.
"The rebuilding has been very, very quick. I don't know where the money came from because when I talk to people they haven't got anything," he said.
"Maybe the money has gone here instead of to the people," he says, gesturing to a newly-built beachfront plaza.
As holidaymakers return, Thailand's tourism board and local organisations are trying to make sure the tragedy does not go unmarked.