|By Kanana Katharangsiporn and Busrin
treerapongpichit, Bangkok Post, ThailandMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
December 23, 2009 --"Five years have passed by... time is flying, isn't it?" murmurs Pamuke Achariyachai, president of Kata Group Resorts Thailand, a Phuket-based hotel group, as if our question about the tsunami had reawakened his memories of the tragedy.
His three hotels on Phuket beaches -- Kata Beach Resort, Karon Beach Resort and Phuket Orchid Resort -- were damaged by the Dec 26 tsunami in 2004 to different degrees. The hardest hit, Karon Beach Resort, was shut down for six months to be totally rebuilt. But the waves only reached the ground floor of Phuket Orchid Resort, also on Karon beach.
Kata Beach Resort was the luckiest, as a small island called Koh Poo deflected the force of the wave. The hotel was hardly hit by the flood, giving tourists and hotel staff time to escape, but it still needed about a month's renovation, costing between 10 million and 20 million baht.
"Fish were in all the swimming pools when the tide ebbed," recalled Mr Pamuke. "On that day, I stayed home in Phuket, noticing that the chandelier in my bedroom was swinging around. One of my hotel staff called me, telling me with a breathless voice that there was a flood. Then I looked up in the sky and saw no sign of rain as the sky was so bright on that day."
Without any hesitation, he tried to drive to the hotel. After being blocked by crowds on the hills, he took a motorcycle taxi to get to the hotel.
"When I reached the hotel, it was unbelievable. It was like a graveyard. No one was there. Everyone had gone to the hills to survive," he said.
"All the dining tables around the swimming pools near the beachfront were pushed into the lobby. There were three tides -- up and down, up and down."
Mr Pamuke learned that day that he needed to train his staff to escape a tsunami by running to the hotel's upper storeys.
After the tsunami, the beaches were very beautiful, he said. But by the third month after the tsunami, everything was the same as it had been before.
"During the early post-tsunami period, tourists were gone but they, especially Westerners, were back as Thai people helped them. They said, 'We need friends'. Thai people impressed tourists," said Mr Pamuke.
One regular guest from Europe disappeared for a year after the tsunami but came back in the second year and tipped the staff from 100,000 to 500,000 baht. This tourist told Mr Pamuke the hotel staff had helped him survive a tsunami.
"In 2006-07, the tourism business improved but the yellow-red unrest had a bad impact on the country. The strongest impact was the airport shutdown in late 2008 and the situation was worsened by the Songkran riots in April this year," he said.
"Usually, we should have full occupancy during the peak season. Today we've got 70 percent. But this is also largely due to the world recession. Tourists continue travelling but with smaller wallets. They have cut back their budgets."
In every crisis, there is an opportunity, said Mr Pamuke. He has travelled to Iceland and was happy to find that people there knew Phuket.
"Phuket was well-known by half of the world but now it's 100 percent," he said. "After the tsunami, I think nothing. I've learned many things and worked for a long time. I think a tsunami is a natural disaster and does not happen every year, but once in a century."
Yet he expressed concern over warning systems and called for government investment.
"The Dec 26 tsunami took two hours to reach Thai coastal areas -- there's enough time to escape. I'm very concerned about my hotel staff and guests. Property can be remade but life cannot."
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