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Thai Tension Over Tourist Behavior

Foreign tourists frolicked Saturday in the gentle waves of the Andaman Sea, riding jet skis, posing for snapshots and sunbathing topless on the sand.

Such scenes were common on the resort island before a deadly tsunami hit six days earlier. But after the devastation, Aime Yodkaew, sweeping away debris, can't quite believe that, for some, life goes on as usual.

Just behind the relaxing foreigners is a store whose windows are gone, blasted out last Sunday by giant waves that killed more than 4,800 people in Thailand and more than 120,000 across southern Asia and in eastern Africa.

Along the beach, students from an international school were clearing up debris left by the waves and stuffing it into garbage bags.

Yodkaew, a Swede who has lived here for years with her Thai husband, said she felt angry at the tourists indulging in the sort of fun Phuket was famous for before the waves hit.

"I just figure if everyone uses about an hour of their holiday time (to help clean up), this would help a lot for the locals," she said.

But she acknowledged that the sooner more tourists return to the resort island's fabled beaches, the sooner her husband's sailboard and catamaran rental business will be able to start making money again.

Tourists are the lifeblood of this beautiful island in southern Thailand and this is the peak season for overseas visitors, Thailand's warm, dry season coinciding with the depth of northern winters.

The heart was torn out of the season by last Sunday's tsunamis, which killed 4,812 people in Thailand, more than half of them foreigners, and left more than 6,000 missing and feared dead.

Although much of Phuket escaped the waves' wrath with little damage, it is inextricably linked to one of the world's worst natural disasters. Its most famous beach, Patong, was one of the hardest hit and the island, with its airport and good roads, has become a regional hub for delivering relief to regions to the north that sustained far more damage and loss of life.

"Definitely less than 10 percent of hotel rooms in Phuket are closed," said John Everingham, who publishes Phuket Magazine, which gives tourists information about the island. "A lot of people haven't left the island, a lot of people who were there have just continued having their holidays."

By contrast, another popular but much smaller island, Phi Phi, was wiped out almost entirely, he said. The worst loss of life was on the mainland north of Phuket, where more than 3,000 bodies already have been found.

The Finance Ministry estimated that the tsunamis will likely shave just 0.3 of a percentage point from gross domestic product growth in 2005.

"The Thai tourism industry hasn't been affected much by this event," Finance Minister Somkid Jatusripitak told reporters. "Foreign tourists may be scared for a short while, but I think in the next two to three months at most, their fears will fade away."

Despite the devastation, some tourists are determined to make the most of their vacation.

On New Year's Eve, hundreds of people quietly clutched white roses and candles as they reflected on the tragedy at a vigil, but elsewhere on Phuket scantily clad women danced in nightclubs while Western tourists drank and partied to loud music.

Jinni Woolf, 26, of Denmark, was on Phuket when the waves hit and was still there Saturday, soaking up the sun on the beach.

"We just can't sit at the hotel and I also think it's very important, like people who have been in a motorcycle accident to ride again to overcome (their fear)," Woolf said.

Charles Vickson, a Buddhist visiting from Hong Kong, said that at Phuket's Laguna resort, which was not badly affected by the waves, he saw bronzed European tourists return to sunbathing by the pool just minutes after the tsunamis.

"They laid out their towel ... and the lady, with her headphones on, resumed her sunbathing as if nothing had happened," he said.

By Miranda Leitsinger

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