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TOURISTS WELCOME

For years, Mama Mia _ that's her real name _ has run a cozy beachfront bar and restaurant catering to European tourists who don't like, or can't afford, the ambience of this island's five-star resorts.

Early on the morning of Dec. 26, Mama was unloading groceries when she realized the turquoise waters of the Andaman Sea had ominously receded. She jumped on her motorscooter and fled as the ocean surged inland, destroying her bar and killing several people along the beach, including Swedish campers in a nearby national park.

But just a few days later the 62-year-old Thai woman was back in business, thanks in part to her loyal customers. Bernard Brickman, a roofer from Germany, bought glasses and kerosene lamps. Egon Schrittwieser, a former stagehand at the Vienna Opera House, pitched in for a new tarpaulin roof.

"This is how we can help now," said Schrittwieser as he and his bikini-clad wife Trudy settled onto barstools one recent morning.

It might seem surreal, even ghoulish, for tourists to be sunbathing and quaffing Singha beer in a region visited by so much death and devastation. But for the 232,000 residents of Phuket Island, the "pearl" of Thailand's tourism industry, there are few sights more welcome these days than farangs, or foreigners.

"What people need to realize is that Phuket is a tourist destination and the livelihood of Thais who live and work here depends on tourism," says Zahid Ali, marketing communications manager of the Sheraton Grande Laguna Phuket. "The impact of the tsunami could be a lot worse if people decide to stay away."

He adds: "To a lot of people, Asia is Asia and we're all standing on one little rock. They figure that if one place got hit, everybody else must be in ruins too."

At the Sheraton, one of five hotels in the luxury Laguna Phuket complex, the water damaged only a few rooms and two restaurants. No guests or staffers were hurt, and the hotel has remained open with full services.

But occupancy plunged after the tsunami hit, and now only 20 to 30 percent of the 335 rooms are taken in what normally would be Phuket's peak season. Ali blames the dropoff in part on a CNN report that Laguna Phuket had been "completely devastated."

On a beautiful Saturday afternoon, the only people in the Sheraton's serpentine pool, billed as one of the longest in Asia, were the manager of another hotel, taking a break, and his wife and daughter. Not a single person was on the beach except for a few Thai snack vendors.

"The first thing they ask is, "When are the guests coming back to your hotel?' " Ali says. "At this time that's what they need _ tourists."

Some 450 miles south of Bangkok, Phuket has transformed in the past two decades from a backpacker's paradise into an upscale international resort. Last year, more than 10-million foreigners, including about 375,000 Americans, visited the island. Tourists are drawn by its tropical climate, crystalline waters and stunning mountain views.

Because of Phuket's hilly terrain, many guests and residents fled to higher ground when the huge waves began rolling in. The death toll for the island stands at around 265, compared with more than 4,000 in Phang Nga province just to the north.

The waves that hit Phuket were fickle, leaving some beachfront areas relatively unscathed while heavily damaging others. Among the hardest hit was the popular tourist area of Patong, known as the "Bourbon Street" of Phuket for its raucous nightlife.

Shortly after 9 a.m. that Sunday, water poured over the highway and surged six feet up the walls of Starbucks, the Warner Brothers Studio Store and Molly Malone's Irish Pub. At a nearby McDonald's, the force of the water was so great that a lifesize statue of Ronald McDonald on a concrete bench swiveled around so that he no longer faced the sea.

The waves also washed down side streets, flooding many smaller shops. Virtually all remain closed, but cleanup and repairs are under way.

The Thai government, mindful of Phuket's $1.4-billion-a-year importance to the country's economy, has promised large amounts of aid to the island. But some residents here fear they won't see much of it.

"The money will go to the rich people, not the small ones," says Max Schaad, a Swiss native whose restaurant and Internet cafe were swamped. He complains that the government waited days to start clearing Patong's side streets after asking _ unsuccessfully _ that the owners pay for the work.

Schaad, who has no insurance, put his building up for sale even before the tsunami hit. He thinks Patong has grown too crowded and honky tonk, a point on which he and the government agree. It already has announced a ban on umbrellas, vendor stalls and other clutter on the beaches, and wants future coastal development to be better regulated.

"Everywhere they're building, there's so much traffic, it's not nice anymore," Schaad says.

A bit farther down the coast, the upscale feel returns. But the once-pristine grounds of 480-room Le Meridien are covered with mattresses, piles of outdoor furniture and thousands of soggy documents.

On Dec. 26, hotel manager Achim Brueckner had just come out of the bathroom when he felt something wet on his feet. He thought a pipe had broken and continued working, unaware that a two-story wall of water was bearing down on his five-star resort.

Lifeguards fished some guests out of the roiling water as hundreds of others fled to the hills, staying there more than six hours for fear another wave would hit. No one died, but a golf instructor scrambled up a coconut tree and another employee, working in the basement, was washed hundreds of feet through underground corridors before emerging in the parking lot.

The tsunami destroyed the hotel's electrical system, forcing Le Meridien to close at least until April. But it is still paying all 820 employees, and many former guests have contributed to a fund to help them and others on Phuket.

Brueckner, who now works from a makeshift office in a breezeway, seems unperturbed that competitors remain open while his hotel is temporarily out of business. The sooner foreigners realize Le Meridien is the exception, he says, the faster all of Phuket will recover.

"It's very important to bring business back. It's sad when you see so many shops and bars and restaurants that are all empty, and in many cases there is no reason for them to be."

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susansptimes.com.

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