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Backpackers To Prop Up Post Tsunami Thai Tourism

Backpackers To Prop Up Post Tsunami Thai Tourism


by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Low-budget, international backpackers will prop up Thailand's crippled travel industry, after tsunamis killed more than 5,300 people, destroyed beach resorts and made wealthier tourists fearful, the author of Lonely Planet's Thailand guide books said.

Backpackers' quests for cheap accommodation also probably saved many of their lives, said Joe Cummings, American author of Lonely Planet's "Thailand" and "Thailand's Islands and Beaches".

"It's pretty clear to me that backpackers are going to be the first market that's going to restore itself here," Mr. Cummings said in an interview after visiting the stricken west coast to update his latest edition.

"I made it down there myself, the 11th day after the tsunami. By then, backpackers were starting to filter back...to the beaches that weren't very affected," he said.

"In fact, probably more backpackers survived than anyone else, because they are too cheap to be on the beach front. I talked with one guy who said, 'I couldn't afford the beach front where everyone died'.

"I think it may have worked in their favor. In many cases, I'm sure. There aren't really many beach front, cheap bungalows left in Thailand. All the expensive hotels have taken up all the immediate beach front, and the backpackers who are on a real budget are generally in funky places that are pretty far back from the beach."

Millions of foreign tourists flock to this Southeast Asian country each year, including countless backpackers.

Thailand's slick, highly commercialized tourism industry offers some of the finest hotels in the world and, at the low-end, bleak but adequate rooms for only a few dollars a night.

Many tourists, rich or slumming, clutch Lonely Planet's fact-packed books.

Each year, 70,000 to 100,000 copies of the "Thailand" guide are purchased by travelers who depend on Mr. Cummings's hip, pithy reviews of hotels, restaurants and tourist sites.

Backpacking became popular in Asia during the late 1960s and early 1970s when American, European and other young people began travelling for months or years while financed by small amounts of cash, seeking exotic pleasures, intellectual and spiritual enlightenment, and freedom.

Today, backpackers also include yuppies, adults and others who can afford better accommodation, but enjoy the inexpensive facilities already established, and prefer to spend their money on digital technology, airplane tickets and other costly conveniences.

Thailand is popular on many backpackers' itineraries, but tsunami-hit Sri Lanka and India are also favorites and will benefit from their rapid return.

Indonesia's Aceh region, however, prohibited tourists before the Dec. 26 earthquake obliterated that western province.

In Thailand, tsunamis killed an unknown number of backpackers including those whose bodies may have been swept out to sea, or be among more than 2,000 recovered, unidentified corpses.

"They are probably at the greatest risk of being on that list of people who are missing and not identified, and they may never be identified," Mr. Cummings said.

Most of the damage and loss of life occurred along Khao Lak beach where plush resorts allowed guests to stroll from their rooms, past luxurious swimming pools and restaurants, and onto the sandy shore.

Tsunamis also caused death and destruction by flattening tiny Phi Phi Island, popular among resort tourists and backpackers because it offered a festive, casual ambience stocked with bars, scuba shops, open-air markets and other holiday attractions.

Phuket island's Patong beach, a crammed and tacky tourist-trap, also suffered a direct hit, but most of the large island was spared.

Thai officials invited Mr. Cummings to travel with them on police helicopters to inspect much of the tsunami zone.

After landing at Phi Phi, he traveled by boat to each bay and beach. He also visited beaches on the mainland along Krabi and elsewhere.

"The higher-end places were more damaged, because the most heavy losses of life were in Patong beach, Khao Lak, and Phi Phi, and all the beachfront property belongs to the high-end.

"All the low-end is well back from the beach. My guess is that backpacker accommodation, in general, is probably the least-affected of all tourist accommodation on the beaches."

Despite the "devastation", he predicted international backpackers "will probably be the backbone of tourism for the remainder of this season at the very least, and maybe into next season. Other people -- more middle-class, and people with families, and high incomes -- may be reluctant to return."

Backpackers who do arrive will get more than they bargain for.

"The rooms will be on sale. Flights will be on sale. A lot of places are announcing promotions, and that will attract a lot of backpackers concerned about budget," he said.

Mr. Cummings, from San Francisco, California, first came to Thailand 28 years ago.

After living here on and off while writing a slew of Lonely Planet guide books over the years, he settled permanently in Thailand in 1997.

The tsunamis hit one week after he finished writing Lonely Planet's newest "Thailand" guide book.

"It has been decided that I will go back and do the whole Andaman coast again in April. We'll give it a little time to restore," he said. "Instead of being published in May, it will now be published in September 2005."

In addition to guide books, Lonely Planet runs an extensive Web site which includes updates about the tsunamis' aftermath, "to try and encourage people to travel, because one of the after-effects of the disaster -- besides all the loss of life and property -- has been the loss of income for people who suffered a stall in tourism," he said.

Lonely Planet, sadly, is now an apt title for much of Thailand's west coast.

"It does feel lonely," Mr. Cummings said, noting that even coastal areas untouched by the tsunamis have lost most of their visitors.

*************

Richard S. Ehrlich, a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia for the past 26 years, is co-author of the non-fiction book, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is www.geocities.com/glossograph/

-ENDS-


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