He knew the birds, but their songs and behavior no longer made sense to Uditha Hettige, the naturalist at the 63-room Yala Safari Game Lodge on Sri Lanka's southeastern coast. Then the sea drained away, only to return in a terrifying 15-foot-high swell that destroyed the beachside resort and carried away at least 42 guests and 13 employees and their relatives, as well as the economic hopes of 400 families on this teardrop-shaped island.
The earthquake that struck off the coast of Sumatra just before 8 a.m. on December 26 spawned a tsunami that wreaked havoc from Aceh to Somalia, took an unimaginable human toll, and rocked the economies of developing nations across the Indian Ocean, including several with large tourism sectors.
Ironically, 2004 had been a record-breaking success for a region that foreign travelers had shunned for some time after the Bali bombing, the Iraqi invasion, SARS, and avian flu.
"We were having a wonderful year, and in the last few minutes things fell apart," says Peter Semone, vice president of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA).
Tourism, an engine for development, can also be a force for reconstruction, bringing income to a region that will be recovering from this disaster for years to come. It won't have a major impact in northern Sumatra, which suffered the greatest casualties; a separatist dispute in Banda Aceh has kept visitors away for years. But countries such as Thailand, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives, where tourism is an economic staple, will be dealt a fresh blow if vacationers avoid the region.
"[The tourists] should come," says Jean-Daniel Schranz, who owns Bamboo Tour in Thailand's southern Trang province, where the tsunami killed five people. "The second catastrophe will be if the tourists cancel everything."
Hiran Cooray, managing director of Jetwing Hotels in Colombo, Sri Lanka, asked his surviving Yala lodge staff what they wanted to do next. Their answer: Rebuild as fast as possible. Less than two weeks after the tsunami, Cooray traveled to the devastated site with an architect to plan a new resort.
"I'm Catholic," Cooray says, "but most Sri Lankans are Buddhist or Hindu. They believe in rebirth."
Though the damage caused by the tsunami was widespread, it was also localized. Some areas will not be able to accommodate travelers in the short term; however, many are ready—and eager—for visitors. Here, a look at the tourist regions that were hardest hit—and the ones that emerged relatively unscathed.
The tsunami struck the dramatic Andaman coast, particularly the west-facing resort areas on Ko Phi Phi and Khao Lak, with swift, selective fury; nearly 240 guests and staff died at Khao Lak's Sofitel Magic Lagoon alone.
"Khao Lak doesn't exist anymore," says Semone.
Seventy-five miles south of Khao Lak, the wave also collided with Phuket, making a shambles of properties along the western beaches of Patong and Kamala. Elsewhere on Phuket, most hotels were spared. Headlands sheltered the 115-villa Banyan Tree Phuket from the surge's full force, and parkland buffered the JW Marriott Phuket Resort & Spa, which got fish in its pool but stayed open and quickly became a hub of relief efforts. Trisara and Amanpuri both had minor problems but remain operational. According to PATA, the tsunami affected only about 10 percent of Phuket's room inventory.
The tsunami swamped the undeveloped east coast—one reason why travelers comprised just 0.5 percent of Sri Lanka's 34,000 dead and missing. However, many rooms in the popular southwestern districts were damaged and closed temporarily.
In Galle, on the southern tip of the island, both the Sun House and the new Amangalla resort were untouched. At press time, both properties were putting up aid workers and displaced villagers, but not receiving guests. (Amangalla pushed back its opening date to mid-February.) The Taj Exotica in Bentota (south of Colombo) suffered some harm but reopened quickly, and Colombo's Taj Samudra was unscathed.
Despite ground-floor damage to 16 rooms at Blue Water, a Geoffrey Bawa-designed property near the beaches of Wadduwa on the southwest coast, the resort remained open. Club Villa, in Bentota, was physically unaffected.
But damage came in a fiscal form as well."Typically we're overbooked in January," Cooray says. This January, however, Jetwing's occupancy sank to 25 percent; Cooray predicts first-quarter losses of $4 million, and PATA foresees "extensive" impact on the tourism sector nationwide.