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 CNS Story:

TSUNAMI-TOURISM Feb-23-2005 (700 words) xxxi

Church helps Catholic business owners in beleaguered tourism sector

By Stephen Steele
Catholic News Service

KRABI, Thailand (CNS) -- The aftereffects of the deadly tsunamis may linger in southern Thailand long after the region is cleaned up and rebuilt, with tourist officials reporting business at less than 10 percent of where it was before the killer waves.

The tsunamis struck the region near the beginning of its high tourist season, crippling the industry. The decline in business eventually could lead to massive layoffs and business closings, business owners said. Tourism officials said occupancy rates for the region's hotels are usually 70 percent to 100 percent during high season.

In effort to help, the Catholic Church in Thailand has awarded cash grants to Catholic business owners to help them pay staff salaries and rebuild businesses.

Bishop Joseph Prathan Sridarunsil of Surat Thani, whose diocese encompasses the six southern provinces affected by the tsunamis, said many of the workers in the tourism sector migrate from Thailand's impoverished northeast and cannot afford the loss of work.

"These are the secondary victims of the tsunami," he told Catholic News Service during an interview in early February.

The bishop said the church decided to offer grants to Catholic business owners as a way "to help those who have done so much for the church."

"These people helped build the church here. We give to them to join them in their suffering," he said.

Stigmatine Father Pornchai Techapitakhtam, the pastor of St. Agnes Church in Krabi who has helped coordinate the church's response to the tsunami, said the church has helped more than 10 business owners with cash grants ranging from about $200 for a food vendor to $12,000 for the operator of a large hotel.

Father Pornchai said some Catholics have refused the help, choosing instead to donate the cash to tsunami victims. He said the owners of the Phra Nang Inn in Ao Nang returned the fees the church paid for renting 10 rooms for volunteer workers.

In early February, a Catholic business owner from Phi Phi Island met with Father Pornchai after Mass. Nuchanart Nuchuey, who operated a pizzeria, received about $2,500 from the church and was there to seek additional help.

Nuchanart told CNS the money will provide about three months of living expenses for her family. She said the owner of the property where her business was located has not indicated whether she could restore her business, and she hoped the church could help her get her business back.

Pramot Phulphorphol, owner of the Andaman Holiday Resort in Krabi, said the occupancy of his hotel is less than 10 percent and that he only opens one of the several restaurants he owns.

But the Catholic business owner said he has not laid off any staff. Many staffers fled the region out of fear of future disasters and over the ghosts that superstitious Thais believed were inhabiting the region, he said.

Thai officials also said the fishing sector, the region's second-largest industry, is severely depressed following the tsunamis.

In the first month following the disaster, Thais shunned seafood because they believed fish were feeding off corpses lost at sea, said Samanant Wangpratheang, director of commercial affairs for Krabi province.

Samanant said "anything connected to the tourist sector is suffering."

Patchara Phulphorphol, president of the Krabi Tourism Association, said the association is marketing vacation packages to Thais, as foreigners have not returned to the region in the numbers needed to sustain the tourist sector.

"I think foreigners are afraid of disease, but that is not the case here. The Ministry of Health has certified that the area is clear of disease," she said.

Patchara said that many resorts, hotels and restaurants have begun laying off workers, or staff has agreed to work for no pay until business improves.

Somkiat Teowtrakul, a 47-year-old business owner, closes his seaside restaurant in Krabi most nights, leaving it open only for lunch. He said business is less than 20 percent of what it should be.

His restaurant was heavily damaged by the Dec. 26 tsunamis. He was at Mass when the waves arrived. His wife, who was at the restaurant, survived by hanging from the structure's rafters.

"Business is down, but we are lucky because no one died," he said.


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