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Mostly untouched by tsunami, Phuket struggles to lure tourists

PHUKET, Thailand—Five weeks after the Asian tsunami washed across this tourist mecca, the waves are still battering Phuket's residents, even though the sea is calm and the air is filled with the sounds of saws and hammers rebuilding the physical damage.

The tourists are gone, and with them tens of thousands of jobs.

More horrifying still, the dead remain very much present, with thousands of bodies unidentified, placed in cold storage in hopes their names will be known one day, a process that might take a year or more.

"It took five months to identify 202 bodies after the Bali bombing," said Leif Andersson, a Swedish detective, referring to a terrorist attack in Bali, Indonesia, two years ago. "We have nearly 2,000 bodies. It could take us one or two years to identify all of them."

The tsunami caused roughly $250 million in property damage in Phuket, according to Pattanpong Aikwanich, the president of the Phuket Tourist Association. But the falloff in tourism during January and February—the high season—is expected to cost $500 million.

Most of the island was untouched by the tsunami, which slammed the western shore but left Phuket City and 90 percent of the island just as it was before. Several small hotels with beachfront bungalows were wiped out, but many larger hotels sustained only minor damage. Some never closed, some already have reopened and others expect to be operating within two to six months.

"Even now, we are ready to welcome the tourists," Aikwanich said, adding that only 5,000 of the island's 35,000 hotel rooms were lost. "Unfortunately, they don't understand that we are ready."

Hotel occupancy has plummeted from the usual high-season rate of 90 percent to just 10 percent.

Roughly 5,300 people died in southern Thailand. Some 1,600 to 1,800 were thought to be Western tourists.

The bodies of only 36 tourists have been officially identified so far, according to Reynold Doiron, a spokesman for the international team that's coordinating the identification effort.

Pathologists have examined and cataloged 1,546 bodies so far. Now investigators will begin trying to match DNA samples, fingerprints, dental records and other clues with information collected by investigators in the victims' home countries.

Until last week, pathologists and other forensic experts were examining bodies at Buddhist temples in Phuket and Khao Lak, a badly damaged city about 60 miles north of Phuket. But authorities are moving the tourists' bodies to one site in Phuket, where the Norwegian government is building an air-conditioned morgue. The new operation should facilitate the pathologists' work. By Friday, 24 refrigerated containers carrying 432 bodies had been moved to the site.

What to do about the jobless is just as daunting. Roughly 130,000 jobs were wiped out in southern Thailand when the wave crashed ashore Dec. 26, said Hakan Bjorkman, the deputy director of the United Nations Development Program's Bangkok office.

While the vast majority were tourism-related, some 30,000 shrimpers and fishermen also lost their jobs. Their boats or fishing traps were obliterated when the tsunami hit 400 villages along the western Thai coast, home to thousands of subsistence fishermen on the shores of the Andaman Sea.

The Thai government gave them food, water, medical care and temporary housing. Now the challenge is to find them work.

"They are poor," Bjorkman said. "Fishing is their safety net. That's what they rely on when nothing else works. When they lose fishing, they become destitute."

The U.N. Development Program will try to provide job training, he said.

But for most Phuket residents, the answer is simple: Lure back the tourists.

"I'm living off my savings," said Ratchanee Kongboong, 36, who ran a small tour business with her husband before the tsunami hit. "I have enough for three or four months."

Kongboong worked in Patong, the town that drew the bulk of Phuket's tourists with its high-rise hotels, beachside bungalows, bars, nightclubs and fast-food restaurants, including McDonald's, KFC, Starbucks and a soon-to-open Hooters.

Although the wave damaged stores along Patong's beachfront strip, most of the town was unharmed. Last week, colorful beach umbrellas and chaise lounges were back on the beach.

But the beach remained largely empty of tourists.

Metta Kankhow, who lost her job at a beachside restaurant and now sells fruit from a street-side stand, issued a plea: "Please come back. Come back to Thailand."

Not only tourists have left. Many workers have returned to their home villages, spooked by the deaths here.

"A lot of them are superstitious," said Bernie Meyer, an Australian who runs Bernie's Bistro Bar and Guest House in Karon Beach. "They're afraid of ghosts. A lot of the people who worked here—especially the bar girls—have gone back home."

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(Stocking reports for the San Jose Mercury News.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): TSUNAMI-PHUKET

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