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New toilets and decorations ready for the renovation of the Sofitel.

Tsunami Resort to Launch New Brand

Sunday, December 16, 2007
ONE OF the largest of the resorts wrecked by the tsunami is now being restored and its reopening in October 2008 will introduce another new five-star brand to the region.

Smart new plumbing and wall decorations are now at the ready in the forecourt of the Sofitel Magic Lagoon Resort and Spa in Phang Nga as workers clamber over the site in where 151 guests and 54 staff perished on December 26, 2004.

Coming soon will be a Kempinski, a quality name that is better known in Europe than elsewhere but which now has a growing presence in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, including in Beijing.

This will be the first Kempinski resort in Thailand.

Tsunami memories of the Sofitel are especially poignant because the resort had been operating as a four-star Novotel, only to reopen as a fancy five-star Sofitel a matter of days before the wave swept in.

About 460 guests were staying there when the tsunami came through and left its watermark on the columns in the elevated foyer, nine metres above sea level.

Sofitel was actually built side-on in four long rectangles leading away from the ocean, the best means of defence against a big wave. But the water came at such a height that only those on the top floor of the three storey buildings could hope to survive.

Six months after the tsunami, Thai volunteers and French sniffer dogs were still clambering in dark, narrow spaces beneath the buildings in the search for victims.

A total of 220 bodies were found on the site because of the propensity of the tsunami to carry victims along the coast, stripping them and swirling them to other sites.

The hulk of the short-lived resort has lain idle ever since.

Restoration now underway under the Kempinski banner represents another highpoint in the recovery of Phang Nga, where the tsunami and all it stands for is unlikely to ever be forgotten the way some tourism insiders on Phuket would like it to be.

The province that suffered most is bouncing back, like a heavyweight contender climbing off the canvas in the mood to floor the reigning champion.

To stroll along the broad beaches of Phang Nga these days is to understand immediately why the mangers of Phuket resorts should not assume their heady high season occupancy rates are guaranteed forever.

Phuket's beaches are lined in European style at this time of the year with row upon row of loungers and packed with visitors who do not seem to mind the company of a few thousand others.

Phang Nga, on the other hand, has beaches that are beautiful and open in the same kind of way as those in Australia or California, where loungers are not seen as necessary or desirable.

There are no smelly, dangerous jetskis either, or seafront hawkers selling their wares lounge to lounge.

The hawkers, the jetskis and the loungers were all banned by a farsighted governor after the tsunami. He took the opportunity of the big wave's quiet aftermath to undo some of the obvious mistakes of the past.

On Phuket, similar suggestions were made but the authorities failed the test of nerve and bowed to pressure groups.

Phuket beaches during the high season now are much the same as they were before the tsunami: pleasant enough if all you want is a tan but not especially appealing places for those who know the difference between an idyllic landscape and a rotisserie.

Fortunately the present Governor of Phang Nga, Wichai Praisa-Ngob, intends to properly maintain the local beaches and their natural appeal.

The chief of the Phang Nga Tourism Association, Prasert Chunpon-ngam, believe that the sale of the Thai Muang Golf Club to Hong Kong interests for more than two billion baht for redevelopment as a six-star resort will spark big changes.

He sees tourism gradually growing up the Phang Nga coast from Khao Lak to Khok Kloi and Kuraburi in the north of the province. The test is to preserve the natural beauty without getting too greedy.

Governor Wichai says that Phang Nga now has 121 resorts and more than 5000 rooms available, and the beaches are more beautiful than they were before the tsunami.

''We plan to keep it green forever,'' he said. ''We can grow along with nature.''

The only problem for Phang Nga is that in the low season, rain comes in steady drizzle that can last for days.

Founded in Germany more than century ago, Kempinski is said to be ''synonymous with distinctive luxury.''

''Located in many of the world's most well known cities and resorts,'' the online site says, ''the Kempinski collection includes hotels in the grand manner, pace-setting modern establishments and older hotels of individual charm.

''All blend gracefully into their surroundings and offer luxurious accommodation, superb cuisine and unrivalled facilities -- complemented by impeccable service.''

Sofitel announced in November that it plans to launch two new brands and create ''true luxury'' within the Accor group.

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