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"To come to Phuket or not?" is not only a question for travelers in general but also an issue for passengers who happen to currently be cruising on Swan Hellenic's Far East "Fantasia" cruise.
Cruise Critic correspondent Greg Straub, onboard Minerva II, reports that the ship's original itinerary had featured calls at ports impacted, in some way or another, by the tragic tsunami of December 26, 2004. Among them were Port Blair in the Andaman Islands; Penang, Malaysia; Chennai, India; and Phuket, Thailand.
Of them all, only Port Blair was canceled. Among those that remained on the itinerary, Phuket, a well-known resort destination, was originally one of the most highly anticipated for passengers onboard -- who nevertheless were nervous about what they might see after viewing, for months now, television news reports of the tragic event.
Writes Straub, "The English language newspapers in Bangkok (the Bangkok Post and The Nation) report tourism officials pleading with visitors to return to Phuket. The officials complain of the laziness (as it seems to them) of Western journalists, who reported only devastation, making it seem in their dispatches that the whole island had been destroyed."
Indeed, after a day-long visit there, Straub reports that there should be no worry, whether traveling via cruise ship or land package, about visiting Phuket. "It survived the tsunamis," he writes. "Indeed, most of the island was untouched, including Phuket Town, home to 80,000 of the island's 230,000 inhabitants. Some of Phuket's best beaches like Karon and Patong are open for business, but few travelers are staying in the beachfront hotels."
Swan Hellenic, which includes most shore tours in passengers' fare prices per company policy, offered three options: a beach transfer to the Hilton, an island drive with Thai dance and an island drive without Thai dance. Writes Straub, "I took this one, and it consisted of a stop at a scenic overlook, a visit to a very nice Buddhist temple complex and a drive through Phuket town (which did not look very appealing). "Interestingly," he adds, "Penang, which suffered comparatively less damage than Phuket, seemed equally deserted of visitors in this, the high tourist season."
Though Minerva II did bypass Port Blair, the ship "sailed by the Andamans yesterday, deviating from our course. People watched in silence as we went by. The Roman Catholic priest onboard read Psalm 130, 'De profundis (out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord)'.
"Still, there is a bit of a ghostly feel on this Far Eastern cruise where availability of cabins -- normally in 'sold out' style demand -- has fluctuated," Straub says. "It seems prospective passengers have agreed with the elderly relation of a couple I met on board who canceled her cabin, saying, 'Too many ghosts!'."