Grief Tourism

Travel to areas affected by natural disasters, places where people were murdered, etc.

Tsunami disaster tourism: Phuket, Thailand

5th June 2006

On the morning of December 26, 2004, Phuket, the largest island of Thailand, felt the first shock of the 9.0 earthquake that brought the “Andaman Wave” to the shores of the Andaman Sea on the Indian Ocean coastline. Hotels along the waterfront were filled with tourists on vacation for the Christmas holidays, unaware of what lay ahead. As the tsunami surged and pounded the waterfront, crowds of people ran for the safety of higher ground. Vehicles were overturned, power lines lay broken, fishing boats were thrown ashore, and flying debris filled the flooded streets and buildings. Adding to the panic and confusion were repeated warnings and rumors of the approach of even larger waves, which for the most part, did not occur. Rescue efforts were hampered and hospitals were soon swamped with casualties, as the water continued to rise. Communication and emergency help for the victims became increasingly difficult and within a two-hour period, areas of Phuket no longer resembled the peaceful tourist destination it once was.

In the aftermath of the tsunami, many of the first visitors returning to Phuket in 2005 found complete devastation of fishing villages, fishing boats, and beachside property extending inland approximately 400 yards or more from the waterfront. Thatched roof huts lay like broken matchsticks on the ground, along with wrecked boats and the ruins of shops, restaurants, and bars. The air was filled with the sounds of hammers and saws as makeshift shelters were being built from driftwood and smashed boats. Hundreds of women and children were living in relief camps or tents, while fishermen mourned the loss of their livelihood and volunteer divers recovered tons of debris from the beach and the sea. A beach resort near Patong, where waves had flooded ground floor rooms, smashed tiled swimming pools, and uprooted trees, was under reconstruction. At Khao Lak, a village on Phuket that suffered extensive damage, visitors discovered wrecked boats, uprooted trees, grass brown with seawater, and mere shells of hotels were all that remained between the village and the sea. In a world where tragedy buys tourism, the morbidly curious and the bargain hunter mingled with grieving relatives and friends, seeking information and identification of their loved ones. Although it is estimated that over 1,000 people were severely injured, 200 died, and 700 were among the missing on the first day of the tsunami, there is no possible way to estimate the amount of suffering and grief that resulted from this disaster

The ongoing recovery of Phuket since December 2004 is due to the remarkable perseverance of the Thai people. Some of the beaches and resorts were restored within a day, and others, such as Kata, Patong, and Karon, in less than a year. Hotels in Phuket are showing a 90% occupancy and airlines are meeting the increased demand for more direct international flights.Tourists returning to Phuket today, expecting to find a scene of complete disaster and loss, are discovering that the seas are clearer than ever before, marine life has returned, and the warmth and hospitality of the Thai people still prevails.

Sharon L. Slayton

One Response to “Tsunami disaster tourism: Phuket, Thailand”

  1. James Trotta Says:

    Arriving here a week after the disaster was surreal: Aside from missing persons advisories at customs and posters to recruit blood donors, little seemed different. And yet, of course, everything was different. What doesn’t change is the culture: The Thai people move forward with minimal fuss, they are always happy to see you, and the warmth is always genuine. You can feel the spirituality put into practice.

    A brief excerpt from – the author was actually in an undamaged spa on Koh Samui so I’m not sure what was so surreal but it’s still interesting that she went to Thailand a week after the tsunami.