Impacts on Thailand’s Tourism Industry after the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami

The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake was one of the deadliest natural disasters in modern times. On December 26, 2004, a 9.1 magnitude earthquake struck 30 km below the surface off the western coast of Sumatra, Indonesia. The earthquake occurred when the tectonic plates beneath Burma and the Indian Ocean collided causing a seafloor rift of several hundred miles, shifting trillions of tons of rock, and triggering one of the deadliest tsunamis in recorded history. The tsunami was so damaging, it was estimated by the U.S. Geological Survey to have released the equivalent energy of 23,000 atomic bombs. Reports show that around 230,000 people were killed in 14 countries, including: Indonesia (which was the most affected), Thailand, Sri Lanka and India.

One of the hardest hit countries in the 2004 tsunami was Thailand, with over 4,800 confirmed deaths, 8,400 injuries and 4,500 missing. With the south western islands of Thailand situated 500 km east of the earthquake’s epicenter, the tsunami took a little over 2 hours to strike. First to be hit were the Similan Islands; a popular diving site for tourists. Phuket, a thriving tourist region, was also hit; reporting over 250 people killed, a majority of whom were tourists. The tsunami caused flooding and damage to all major beaches on the islands. One of the worst areas affected was the resort area of Khao Lak with nearly 4,000 confirmed deaths.

With the majority of affected areas being popular resort towns, many tourists, as well as local Thai hospotality workers were casualties. Of the 4,000+ casualties, almost 2,500 were tourists.  The damage to the beach resorts along the Andaman Sea, as well as the high tourist death-count, led to a sharp decrease in the tourism industry in Thailand. Damage caused by the tsunami and earthquake were estimated at $508 million USD.

Immediately after these events, thousands of Thai-owned hotels and independent business located on these small islands lost their jobs, as tourists were afraid to travel to Thailand. In the months that followed however, the Thai government re-opened all hotels and began advertising heavily in an attempt to lure visitors back to the country. In spite of efforts, the following year showed a 90% drop in hotel bookings, and a general tourism decrease of 26%. This decreased tourism would remain constant over the following 2 years, however it soon saw the beginnings of a comeback.  One of the major contributors to the high death-count was the absence of tsunami warning systems on the islands; an oversight which was rectified soon after, resulting in renewed sense of tourist safety and interest in the area.  Two years after the tsunami, Thailand welcomed a tourist population of over 13 million, which can be largely attributed to the new warning systems.  These alarms can be found along the beaches of islands such as Phuket, Khao Lak, and the Similan Islands. Tourism has continued to increase since 2006, reaching its all time high in 2013 of 26 million visitors.

Though the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami did have a large impact of the tourism industry of Thailand, it was not disrupted in the long-term, as tourists from all over the world continue to travel to Thailand’s beautiful beaches.

(Maria Langill)

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