Post-Tsunami Thailand Slowly Recovers

Christmas Day on the beaches of Thailand seemed as festive and colorful as ever, especially for Western tourists here to escape the frigid winters back home.

And, as always, the day was picture-postcard perfect -- just as it was a year ago in the last hours before disaster struck.

The Southeast Asia tsunami smashed into the island of Phuket, tore through the town of Patong, obliterated a string of luxury hotels in Khao Lak and transformed Phi Phi Island into something resembling a war zone. More than 5,000 were dead and missing, half of them foreign tourists. Amid the death and destruction, Thailand's vital tourist industry was shattered.

Over the past year, Thailand has desperately tried to convince the world that this is not paradise lost. The rebulding has been extensive, the promotions relentless. And tourists are trickling back.

But the recovery, the healing, is not nearly as complete as Thailand would have liked. In fact, it's difficult to go almost anywhere here today without running into some grim reminder.

There are the new tsunami warning towers, evacuation signs and repeated assurances from hotel managers. "We have fantastic warning systems in place," said Daniel Muhor, assistant manager of the Meridien Hotel. "We know we have 20 to 25 minutes to evacuate people."

And yet, many of the most heavily damaged hotels haven't been rebuilt -- owners are not yet certain the business is there.

Businesses Struggle

Tours have to hustle for guests on a holiday weekend that used to be completely sold out. A sign promises Christmas in paradise, but it sits on a site where hundreds died when their beach bungalows were washed away.

It's not an easy sell, said Yvonne Dehaay of the Deithelm Travel Agency. "I hear from my guests, back home when they say, 'I'm going to Thailand or Phuket,' then they're told, 'You're crazy,'" she said.

Local merchants say business remains so bad that some have turned to selling photo albums of the tsunami damage. And now, with the onset of anniversary events, it's even more difficult to escape the memories.

Thousands have returned to remember those who died with prayers and commemorative plaques. One at a grocery store will remind shoppers of an exceptionally grizzly event: "The 50 people who drowned in the store when they tried to flee the tsunami wave."

One way or another, the tsunami will be part of nearly everyone's visit and in everyone's thoughts this year.

They know it is Christmas today. But tomorrow, at the hour the tsunami struck, Christmas will seem very far away.