In the TV world, the first commandment is, “If it bleeds, it leads.” So it’s easy to understand why the mass media tried to out-shock their competitors in the wake of tsunami. But when the press gets their facts wrong, and over exaggerates how bad the situation is along the Andaman coast, journalists have a duty to set the record straight.
Amid waves of misinformation about the infrastructure on Phuket and Ko Lanta being completely destroyed, outbreaks of disease being imminent, and all the coral reefs being obliterated, I travelled around Phuket and Krabi province for five days in mid-January to try and sift the facts from the fiction.
Andrew Vecchio, who has immersed himself in Phuket’s dive industry for 12 years, says that in the days following the tsunami he received phone calls from relatives worried that the island’s infrastructure was in shambles. “They told me, ‘Come home, we have food and electricity. I told them, ‘So do I,’” he laughed.
Media reports that the Andaman’s iridescent array of corals was mostly ruined also don’t hold water. Surveys undertaken by Thai marine biologists, working in tandem with Farang-owned dive shops and volunteer divers, have estimated that about five to 10 percent of the reefs around Ko Phi Phi and Phuket, mostly in the shallows, have been spoiled by the tsunami – an estimate that Andrew agreed with – and enormous clean-up operations are underway to control the damage done.
“There wasn’t a huge wave at the dive sites, just a surging of water, and some strong currents throwing debris around, but I would be surprised if much of the damage is recognisable within a couple of weeks. So people who haven’t been to that area before wouldn’t be disappointed,” said Alex, who works at All 4 Diving, one of some 60 dive centres around Patong Beach, all of which have experienced a sharp drop-off in customers.
It’s been harder to survey the damage around the further-flung Similan and Surin National Marine Parks, but preliminary estimates reveal that around 20 to 25 percent of the dive sites (consistently ranked within the world’s top 10 underwater destinations) have endured severe damage.
Yet another of the mass media’s scare tactics was alleging that outbreaks of disease were imminent. This has not happened in Thailand, said Peter Davison, the manager of international services at Phuket International Hospital, and is not likely to either.
“The Public Health Ministry has done a great job in controlling any potential epidemics.” he commented.
Many of the beaches, like Surin, actually look cleaner, the water more lucid, than ever. And you’ll see the same kinds of sights: swimmers, sunbathers soaking up the UV Rays on the sand or deck chairs, jet-skiers, children playing boisterously along the shoreline, nomadic Thai vendors hawking sarongs and handicrafts and soft drinks.
But where are all the people? The Westerners have been scared away by the media hype and many superstitious Asians have been scared off because they believe restless, malicious spirits are wandering around. But I didn’t see any of the supposed spectres haunting the area, or have a single nightmare.
Normally, at this time of the year, most hotels on the islands have occupancy rates of around 90 percent. Now they’ve plummeted to around 10 percent.
If the tides don’t turn, that means another tragedy is looming: massive layoffs.
“The ratio that hotels use is 1.6 workers per hotel room. At Khao Lak they lost 6,000 rooms, so they reckon about 10,000 jobs lost there,” Grenville said. “There has been an initiative to try and absorb some of those on Phuket, but if there aren’t any tourists…”
Government estimates of the number of jobs which may disappear on the country’s Andaman coast range from 50,000 to 200,000. With spurious stories swimming around, like marine creatures feeding on corpses, fishermen in the area have also found their net profits plunging to an all-time low.
Many of the locals I spoke with preferred to look for the silver linings in these black clouds that hang over the Andaman’s tourism industry, however. Niran Surirawong, who works in sales and marketing for Suthincarrent and Tour on Phuket, said he agrees with the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s plan to rezone and regulate Patong Beach, laying the groundwork for bicycle lanes while limiting the number of deck chairs and beach umbrellas.
“The area was a bit of a mess before, but the crisis has given us a chance to clean up the situation,” said Niran, whose company is still organizing tours to Phangnga Bay, one of the world’s natural wonders.
Over in the city of Krabi, most of the area’s top attractions, like Railay, Koh Poda, Ao Nang, and Koh Lanta, were largely spared by the tsunami, and are as beautiful as ever, said the mayor of the municipality Keratesuk Phukaoluan, who has held the post for 19 years.
Government plans are afloat to rebuild the province’s most catastrophically lashed island of Ko Phi Phi: “It is possible that the government will buy back the land and try to redevelop it in a more sensible way that is also kinder to the environment,” said Keratesuk, adding that rebuilding the island may take a minimum of eight months.
On the restaurant’s wall is a photo of its most famous customer, Leonardo Di Caprio, who came here when he was filming The Beach near Phi Phi’s Maya Bay (still intact and already being visited again by a trickle of tourists). Henrik Envevoldsen, the co-owner, said with a laugh, “Leonardo is welcome back to visit ‘The Beach’ and eat our meatballs any time he wants.”
Henrik was yet another person I spoke with who was severely disappointed by the major TV news networks misleading coverage of the natural disaster. “In the beginning they said about 90 percent of Ko Lanta was destroyed, but it wasn’t true. Only about 10 percent of the island was affected and most of the bungalows and dive shops are still open.”
In spite of the fact that most hotels in the province were only 10 percent full, the Dane was encouraged by governments altering their travel advisories, and the recent reports he had read in the Scandinavian press.
“The Norwegian government and the Danish and Swedish ones have lifted their travel warning. Some of the biggest tour operators in Scandinavia are resuming flights to Krabi, with less than 10 percent of cancellations,” he said. “And people have been told through the media that the best way they can support Thailand now is to come here and travel.”