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Thai island spooks post-tsunami tourists

Superstition keeps many Asians away

HONG KONG -- Worries about another deadly tsunami are keeping many tourists from Phuket, the premier resort island of southern Thailand.

But Asian vacationers are staying away for another reason: fear that the ghosts of thousands of victims may be haunting the beaches and bungalows.

A widely held superstition in Chinese societies holds that if bodies are not recovered and properly buried, the spirits restlessly wander the world. Some think the lost souls try to drag living beings into their spiritual limbo land.

''As soon as people try to go into the sea, they start worrying about these things," said Joseph Tung Yao Chung, executive director of the Travel Industry Council of Hong Kong.

Six months after the disaster, Tung says Hong Kongers are avoiding Phuket, and travel industry executives in Taiwan, mainland China, and South Korea also report the tropical island is no longer a popular destination.

Media reports have helped fuel the superstition in South Korea. The free tabloid Sports Korea recently ran a story about three popular Korean celebrities who were filming a television show in Phuket, saying the stars reported hearing voices at their hotel that they believed were spirits.

More than 5,300 people are known dead and 2,900 more went missing when the tsunami hit Thailand's southwestern coast Dec. 26, exactly six months ago yesterday. Many victims were tourists from Europe and Asia.

Many beach hotels were quickly repaired, and Thailand's travel industry is aggressively promoting the area with assurances that it is making a quick recovery. A government-backed tsunami system to warn beachgoers of any tsunami threat is being installed.

Among the places hit was Phuket's busiest beach, Patong.

The Holiday Inn Resort Phuket on Patong reported a 71 percent decline in room bookings in April and May, compared with the same time last year. The hotel said guests from Japan, mainland China, and Hong Kong were down 93 percent, 91 percent, and 83 percent, respectively.

''The tourists from Australia and the [United Kingdom] are not worried," said Rapeeporn Thavorn, director of revenue at the Holiday Inn. ''They say it's nature, it happened, and it is past. They're not scared."

Business has been so bad that many Asian airlines cut their direct flights to Phuket. Taiwan's biggest carrier, China Airlines, doesn't plan to resume the service until the end of the year, said company spokesman Joseph Wu.

''Now more travelers go to northeast Asia, especially Japan and South Korea," Wu said. ''The tsunami affected the wish of tourists to go to Phuket, but not to Bangkok, where we have three to four daily flights."

Eric Wu, a Southeast Asia specialist at the Taipei Association of Travel Agents, said sharp discounts haven't helped rekindle interest in Phuket. Tours once priced at $500 have been slashed by half.

He estimated that Phuket would need at least three to six more months before showing signs of recovery.

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