The day before Christmas, Thai government officials happily predicted a banner year for tourism, one of Thailand's major industries, in 2005. The day after Christmas, when a tidal...

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The day before Christmas, Thai government officials happily predicted a banner year for tourism, one of Thailand’s major industries, in 2005.

The day after Christmas, when a tidal wave devastated the popular beach resorts around Phuket on the south coast, Thais began counting the dead and the massive damage to hotels, businesses and homes. And the U.S. government, and others, warned travelers to stay away from affected areas at least until the end of January.

In a dozen nations around the Indian Ocean, the death toll may surpass 100,000 and property damage was in the billions after tsunamis caused by a deep-sea earthquake slammed ashore last Sunday. The vast majority of the dead and injured were local residents, but thousands of foreign vacationers, in southern Asia for the peak Christmas/New Year holiday, were among the victims.

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Among tourist destinations, the island nation of Sri Lanka and beach resorts in and near the Thai island of Phuket were particularly hard hit.

At Khao Lak beach north of Phuket, vacationers’ bodies were pulled from the mud for days after a wall of water surged through the hotels of the beach resort. About 8,000 hotel rooms there were destroyed, according to the Bangkok Post newspaper.

On nearby Phi Phi island, a tropical hideaway popular with foreign backpackers, seawater swept through small beachfront bungalow hotels and restaurants, sucking them out to sea.

In Sri Lanka, a mecca for sun-starved British and northern European vacationers on package tours, the coastal towns and beach hotels were severely damaged.

Remote islands in the Indian Ocean, including the Maldives and Andaman Islands, hideaways for divers and adventurous travelers, were devastated by flood waters.

The U.S. State Department, British and other governments have warned against travel to affected areas; the U.S. advisories for Thailand and Sri Lanka, one of the hardest-hit countries, are in effect until at least late January. Tours and cruises have been canceled for now, including Star Cruises’ frequent Singapore-Phuket sailings. There also are fears of disease because of lack of clean drinking water and other infrastructure.

But travel-industry groups, fearful that the disaster will dampen travel much of Asia, as occurred in 2003 during the outbreak of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) in the region, were quick to note that most of Asia was unaffected by the tidal waves.

“Outside the Indian Ocean rim areas, the travel industry continues its normal business,” said Peter de Jong, president of the Pacific Asia Travel Association.

“There is no need to cancel trips to non-affected areas. And even some affected areas have some coastal hotels that escaped serious impact and are open for business,” de Jong said.

Thailand’s government tourist office pointed out that popular resorts along the country’s east coast (along the Gulf of Thailand) were untouched, including Koh Samui and Pattaya. Even around hard-hit Phuket and the nearby beach resort of Krabi, some luxury beachfront hotels remained open, including a Sheraton.

Yet the damage to the Phuket area could devastate the country’s tourism industry and image: The area, about 500 miles south of Bangkok, is a major destination for Asian and Western tourists, attracting about 6 million visitors a year and providing jobs for tens of thousands of Thais.

For those who have been planning to travel to affected areas in Thailand and other nations, here are some ways to get information and decide if and when to go.


U.S. State Department

: It issues travel warnings and advisories on countries worldwide, and has urged Americans to delay all non-essential travel to Sri Lanka; to the Phuket area of Thailand; and to coastal areas of the Indonesian island of Sumatra and more because of the devastation. See www.travel.state.gov or call 888-407-4747.

Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA)
: The industry group is a clearing house for travel information with updates from government tourism offices, hotels and more posted on its Web site. www.pata.org

Useful Web sites
: Some Asian governments are posting information on their tourism Web sites, including Thailand at www.tatnews.org. The Web sites of English-language Asian newspapers have details on damage and reconstruction, including the Bangkok Post: www.bangkokpost.net. The Web site of travel publisher Lonely Planet has extensive information on conditions, how to help and travelers’ postings: www.lonelyplanet.com.

To go or not to go:


• Check and doublecheck on hotel reconstruction and the state of the area by asking detailed questions of travel agents and the hotels. Many hotels will strive to reopen quickly in tourism-dependent areas such as Phuket, but their pools and restaurants may not be ready and it could take months to clean up and rebuild.

• Check with airlines, tour companies and hotels on canceling or delaying an already-booked trip; most will be lenient in the immediate weeks after the disaster. For already-booked travel in several months, you may have to bargain for a refund or trip credit or alternative destination as travel businesses seek to stem their losses.

• Before booking a trip to an affected area, make sure you can cancel if you find out that cleanup/rebuilding is not finished. Get the details confirmed in writing.

• Investigate trip-cancellation insurance; check with a travel agent or the Web site www.insuremytrip.com has useful details.

To assist local victims
: Dozens of aid groups are helping; for a list of agencies to which donations can be made, see www.seattletimes.com/travel

Kristin Jackson: 206-464-2271 or kjackson@seattletimes.com

Some material from the Associated Press was used in this report