Sun, sea, sand and tsunami: examining disaster vulnerability in the tourism community of Khao Lak, Thailand


Emma Calgaro (email:


The impact of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami on coastal tourism communities highlights the vulnerability of tourism destinations to external shocks. Based on fieldwork conducted in Thailand in the wake of this disaster, this paper addresses one fundamental question: what sociopolitical and environmental conditions contributed to the vulnerability of the affected tourism community of Khao Lak in the southern Phang Nga Province. We argue that an understanding of the root causes of destination vulnerability is vital not only for the successful implementation of regional recovery plans, but also for building long-term resilience against future shocks. In the absence of an appropriate tourism vulnerability framework, this paper analyzes Khao Lak's vulnerability through an innovative theoretical framework comprised of the sustainability vulnerability framework, relational scale and place. The findings reveal that Khao Lak's vulnerability is shaped by 13 interlinked factors. These are the complex outcomes of social norms and developmental and dynamic governance processes driven by the competing agendas and scaled actions of key government and industry stakeholders. The identification and understanding of the drivers of Khao Lak's vulnerability and a strong vulnerability framework have significant implications for the wider tourism community. First, the empirical findings provide tourism communities with a blueprint for understanding the foundations of their vulnerability to external shocks. Second, the tourism vulnerability framework presented here provides destination communities and government stakeholders with an analytical tool through which to analyze their unique sociopolitical conditions. Together, these empirical and theoretical contributions bring us closer to securing sustainable livelihood futures for tourism dependent communities.


The World Tourism Organization (WTO) and nongovernment organizations (NGOs) such as Tourism Concern and the Netherlands Development Programme have endorsed tourism as having the capacity to stimulate development, economic growth, new opportunities for poverty alleviation and self-governance, particularly in regions that are resource-scarce and have limited livelihood options. (Ashley et al., 2000; WTO, 2005a). Such endorsements have enticed many developing countries to embrace tourism as a viable livelihood alternative where fragmented small economies, limited natural resources (Wilkinson, 1989) and unequal terms of trade (Oliver-Smith, 1996; Bankoff, 2003) limit livelihood options. This development trend has seen tourism eclipse traditional subsistence-based livelihoods such as agriculture and fishing as the main source of revenue (Richter, 1993; UNEP, 2002).

Missing from the WTO's advocacy of tourism's developmental capabilities is an acknowledgement of the inherent vulnerability of host communities to shocks, as was powerfully demonstrated by the impacts of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. The repercussions of prior events such as the 1997–1998 Asian financial crises, the Bali bombings of 2001 and 2005, the severe acute respiratory syndrome and bird flu epidemics of 2003 and 2004 had already highlighted the sensitivity of destination communities to both localized and remote events beyond their control (Ritchie, 2004).

In the light of this, we deem it essential to investigate how long-term benefits from tourism can be sustained in the face of risk and vulnerability by incorporating an assessment of a host community's vulnerability into all tourism development and management strategies. Research on risk and sustainability supports this view: long-term resilience plans aimed at securing future sustainable livelihoods cannot be operationalized without an understanding of the underlying sociopolitical processes and environmental linkages that underpin vulnerability (Clark et al., 2000; Cutter et al., 2000; Pelling, 2003; Turner et al., 2003; Thomalla et al., 2006).

The tourism literature identifies five factors that help to explain why some destinations are vulnerable to shocks: the place-specific nature of tourist activity (Richter & Waugh, 1986, Sönmez et al., 1999), the fragility of destination images to negative perceptions of risk (Richter & Waugh, 1986; Sönmez & Graefe, 1998; Mansfeld, 1999; Huan et al., 2004), a high dependency on tourism as a primary livelihood (Knox & Marston, 2004; Ritchie, 2004), a heavy reliance on the marketing strategies of international tour operators (Knox & Marston, 2004), and high levels of seasonality (Méheaux & Parker, 2006). These are common characteristics of tourism activity in many developing country destinations including those affected by the 2004 tsunami, in Thailand, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. The growing popularity of using tourism as a development tool in resource-scarce regions will likely see this vulnerability increase (Knox & Marston, 2004). Seasonal tourism flows and annual business revenue can easily be disrupted by shocks, causing simultaneous losses for household, community, regional and national actors. Losses further diminish investment confidence, lower rates of job creation, slow economic growth and reduce gross domestic product (GDP) (Sönmez et al., 1999; Gurtner, 2004). Richter and Waugh (1986) observe that if there is trouble in one area tourists simply choose alternate destinations, which demonstrates the most disempowering characteristic of tourism-dependence for destination households and communities. In contrast, international tour operators and national governments anxious to retain projected levels of GDP and foreign exchange can avoid this pitfall by diverting business to alternate in-country or regional destinations.

While the identification of these provide significant insights into the vulnerability of tourism communities, a systematic analysis of the place-specific environmental and sociopolitical causal factors underlying vulnerability in tourism destinations is missing. This research addresses this omission by focusing on the impacts of the 2004 tsunami on Khao Lak, Phang Nga Province, southern Thailand. By so doing, it provides the foundational knowledge necessary for tourism community stakeholders, regional planners and policy makers to formulate robust resilience building strategies that account for the root causes of destination vulnerability rather than the consequences of shocks alone.

Building a framework for analyzing tourism destination vulnerability

Adopting an interdisciplinary approach, vulnerability is recognized as a multidimensional product of the coupled human–environment system and defined as:

The degree to which an exposure unit [human groups, ecosystems and communities] is susceptible to harm due to exposure to a perturbation or stress, and the ability (or lack thereof) of the exposure unit to cope, recover, or fundamentally adapt (become a new system or become extinct) (Kasperson et al., 2002: 7).

The vulnerability of a community or group is determined by three dynamic and interconnected dimensions: exposure, sensitivity, and resilience (Clark et al., 2000; Turner et al., 2003). Exposure, a product of physical location and the character of the built and natural environment (Pelling, 2003: 48), is defined as the degree to which an exposure unit comes into contact with stressors or shocks (Clark et al., 2000: 2). Sensitivity is defined as the degree to which an exposure unit is affected by any set of stresses (Clark et al., 2000) and reflects the capacity of individuals or groups to anticipate and withstand the impacts of a hazard (Pelling, 2003: 48). Sensitivity is characterised predominantly by preexisting conditions of the social system that may be improved or exacerbated by coping and adaptation strategies post-shock. Resilience is defined as the ability of an exposure unit to absorb and adapt to recurrent external stresses without losing its fundamental structure and function (Adger et al., 2002). Resilience is a direct expression of the strength of the coupled human–environment system reflecting its self organization, learning, and adaptation capabilities in response to shocks (Carpenter et al., 2001).

The ability to anticipate, withstand, and recover from shocks hinges upon people's access and entitlements to natural, economic, social and political capital. These, in turn, are determined by the strength and effectiveness of the governance systems and social networks (Hewitt, 1997; Adger, 2003) that facilitate (or constrain) access to capital and the competing agendas and ideologies driving them (Adger, 1999; Pelling, 2003; Wisner et al., 2004). These are expressed through formal government structures, political ideologies, ethnicity, class, religion and social norms determined by human agency and wider historically embedded and contemporary sociopolitical and economic processes operating simultaneously at multiple scales of social organization (Kelly & Adger, 2000; Bankoff, 2003; Wisner et al., 2004). An awareness of the processes that drive the uneven distribution of power and resources within the social system is therefore crucial to understanding vulnerability.

Climate change, disaster management and food security research has provided numerous frameworks and methods for assessing vulnerability in risk prone locations (see Cannon et al., 2003), but none of these approaches have been adapted to assess vulnerability in tourism destinations. Nankervis (2000) does provide an industry specific vulnerability framework but its focus on all tourism business stakeholders operating at the global to local scales leaves the framework lacking necessary detail at the community level. In the absence of a suitable framework, this paper presents a robust tourism vulnerability framework consisting of three complementary theoretical constructs: Turner et al.'s (2003) sustainability vulnerability framework, relational scale and place. Together, these theoretical tools create a strong framework for analyzing the multiple causal factors and underlying power discourses that contribute to the vulnerability of tourism communities.

The sustainability vulnerability framework

Born out of the interdisciplinary systems approach to vulnerability analysis, Turner et al. (2003) present a framework that systematically identifies and maps the scaled interlinked components and processes that heighten vulnerability within the human–environment system. Turner et al.'s (2003) sustainability vulnerability framework was chosen to guide and structure the analysis of destination vulnerability based on its inclusion of the multiple attributes of vulnerability. It captures the dynamic and differential nature of vulnerability whereby populations, characteristics and driving forces of vulnerability change over space and time (Vogel & O'Brien, 2004). The framework not only recognises that an individual's or group's exposure, sensitivity and resilience to shocks is directly linked to access and entitlements to resources in a given location (Figure 1) but also places this experience within a wider context. The focus of the framework expands to show the way in which resource entitlements, distribution and usage is influenced by evolutionary (Cutter et al., 2000; Bankoff, 2003) sociopolitical and environmental processes operating at multiple scales of social organisation (Figure 2). Further, the framework also shows that vulnerability is affected by multiple and compounding stressors and a population's capacity to respond and adapt over time and space (including consequences and risks of slow and poor recoveries) (Lewis, 1999; Cutter et al., 2000; Turner et al., 2003; Adger, 2006).

Figure 1.

Interactive components of vulnerability within a given place from Turner et al. (2003: 8077, Figure 4). Inset figure at the top left refers to the full vulnerability framework at Figure 2 below. (Copyright (2003) National Academy of Sciences, USA; reproduced with permission.)

Figure 2.

The sustainability vulnerability framework proposed by Turner et al. (2003: 8076, Figure 3). (Copyright (2003) National Academy of Sciences, USA; reproduced with permission.)

However, the sustainability vulnerability framework does not offer a forum for analyzing how various social actors use scaled sociopolitical processes and structures to both facilitate and constrain access to capital, which in turn influences an individual's or community's vulnerability to external shocks. The geographical concepts of relational scale and place fulfil these analytical requirements.

The dynamics of relational scale

Stemming from geographical theory on spatial organization, relational scale recognizes scale as a fluid and dynamic sociopolitical construct that reflects the subjectivity of historical and contemporary power processes. Through the deconstruction of ‘naturalized’ scales of social organization (such as national, regional, local, and so on), relational scale explores the way in which actors simultaneously use multiple scaled social processes and supporting structures to either reinforce the uneven balance of power within a given society or create new landscapes of power, recognition and opportunity (Howitt, 1993; Ellem, 2002; Herod & Wright, 2002). The angle depends on the politicized agendas or positionality of the actors involved. Put simply, knowing which political buttons to press and at what scale is crucial in bringing about a favourable outcome.

Recognizing scale as an expression of power and control over capital, relational scale adds depth and dynamism to Turner et al.'s (2003) vulnerability framework by exposing the underlying sociopolitical processes and corresponding structures that perpetuate social inequality, and the agendas that drive them. This creates an invaluable medium for analyzing the vulnerability of tourism communities in three ways. First, its focus on stakeholder dynamics requires the identification of the various actors that influence destination vulnerability. Second, it explores how these stakeholders position themselves within the political arena to increase their access to capital. Finally, the identification of key stakeholders with vested interests in tourism development and the multiscaled structures they work through provide planners, policy makers and community members with a clear directive regarding the type of resilience strategies required, the target audience and the most appropriate scales for policy intervention.

Place: a sociopolitically charged landscape

Place provides a theoretical lens through which to define Khao Lak as the subject of study and ‘situate’ it within the wider structures and processes that influence its vulnerability. The concept of place is more than a physical location or politically demarcated space. Place embodies a sociopolitically charged landscape infused with multiple layers of meaning, collective identities, experiences and understandings developed over time and space (Massey, 1993). Like vulnerability, place is an ever evolving multifaceted creation of social processes and human agency. The uniqueness of place derives from a distinct blend of localized and wider social interactions operating outside a given place and a historical layering of events particular to that area (Massey, 1993). However, underlying the subjective construction of place is the power of definition (Cresswell, 1999).

Place as a sociopolitical product of multiple images, identities and interactions is embodied in the systematic creation of the tourism product. The product encapsulated in the tourism destination is a blend of multilayered imaginations constructed and defined by tour operators and key destination stakeholders in accordance with the perceived expectations and desires of the travelling public (Pritchard & Morgan, 2000; Young, 1999). In this sense, places are reinterpreted, reimagined, designed and marketed (Knox & Marston, 2004) as manufactured and ‘placed’ images that are sold to tourists (Nijman, 1999). The identification of who carries out the reimaging and cultural packaging and on what terms (Knox & Marston, 2004) are key to understanding important power dynamics that not only mould the tourism product, but may also influence the destination's vulnerability.


Considering the place-specific nature of vulnerability, case study analysis has come to dominate vulnerability assessment based on its capacity to deconstruct complex and place-based phenomena. Khao Lak was chosen as the case study because it was the worst affected tourism destination across Asia and Africa in terms of lives lost and property damage. Three qualitative methods were used to identify the factors and processes that contribute to Khao Lak's vulnerability to shocks. An exploratory literature review together with secondary document analysis (of newspaper reports, NGO recovery reports and various official and government documents) identified preliminary causal factors that heightened Khao Lak's vulnerability to the tsunami, which in turn, shaped relevant questions for semistructured field interviews. Twenty-four interviews with tourism stakeholders (8 in Bangkok, 1 in Phuket and 15 in Khao Lak) were undertaken over a one-month period in mid-2005 to verify and build upon the factors identified from the secondary data, supplemented by ongoing updates. Interview participants included national, provincial, district and subdistrict government representatives, nongovernmental organization (NGO) representatives, environmental action group members, research institute and media representatives, and tourism industry representatives from small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in Khao Lak. The Bangkok and Phuket participants were selected for their knowledge of the tourism industry and Thai government structures, plus their involvement in the recovery process. Khao Lak participants were identified using snowballing techniques. As many interviews were conducted on condition of anonymity, the names of some individuals quoted here are withheld.

Khao Lak: beautiful and booming one day, gone the next

Khao Lak is a new coastal resort destination that had grown from 100 rooms in 1996 to 5315 rooms by December 2004.1 Located on Thailand's southwest Andaman Coast, in Takuapa District, Phang Nga Province, and bordered by Khao Lak-Lamru National Park, the heart of the destination extends from Khao Lak Beach northwards to Laem Pakarang (or Coral Cape) (Figure 3). Positioned within the competitive Thai tourism market as an alternative to its bustling neighbouring destination of Phuket (98 km to the south), Khao Lak is marketed as a peaceful haven for nature lovers who want to relax. Tourists attracted to Khao Lak are predominantly German and Swedish families and retirees escaping the European winter.

Figure 3.

Location map of Khao Lak in Phang Nga Province, southern Thailand; the dotted line approximates the tsunami-eroded beachfront.

The service community that has grown with the destination mainly comprises locally owned SMEs including resorts, restaurants, souvenir shops, tailoring and health spa facilities, taxi and guide services, and scuba diving companies. Khao Lak's 4- and 5-star resort developments, owned by both local investors and international chains, only appeared after 2000 but their numbers have increased since the tsunami, whereas many smaller businesses have lacked the financial and psychological strength to rebuild. Strong tourist demand is generated through locally run accommodation websites, travel guidebooks and the promotions of European tour operators including TUI AG (Touristik Union International Aktiengesellschaft) and Thomas Cook. Constant demand fills the resorts to full capacity for six months between October and March, providing enough earnings to sustain the community through the wet low season (averaging 30 per cent capacity).

During the December 2004 tsunami, 10.6-m-high waves penetrated up to 2 km inland, destroying approximately 90 per cent of the hotel rooms available in Khao Lak (Bangkok Post, 2005). Seventy per cent of the 8212 deaths in Thailand occurred in Phang Nga Province (ADPC, 2006). Estimates suggest that 358 of Khao Lak's tourism employees lost their lives along with 2229 foreigners (ADPC, 2006; director, Department of Labour, Phang Nga Province, pers. comm., Phang Nga, 7 February 2007). Those workers who survived were left with no jobs, no income and few livelihood alternatives to support a recovery.

Case study findings: the vulnerability of Khao Lak deconstructed

Disasters such as the 2004 tsunami dramatically expose the strengths and weaknesses of the affected community's socioenvironmental system and thus its vulnerability to shocks (Pelling, 2003; Wisner et al., 2004). But disasters can also be catalysts for change (Oliver-Smith, 1996; Lewis, 1999). Reflecting the complex nature of vulnerability, the presentation of the causal factors is neither simple nor linear; the factors feed into and off each other. Accordingly, we use a conceptual structure based on Turner et al.'s (2003) framework to explore the causal factors that have contributed respectively to the exposure, sensitivity and resilience of the Khao Lak community to the tsunami. Woven throughout the analysis are elucidations into how these factors are socially constructed and reinforced by economic development processes, uneven access to resources, weak governance and the competing agendas of key stakeholders. An overview of the 13 three-dimensional factors that underlie Khao Lak's vulnerability and the scales at which they are constructed is presented in Figure 4.

Figure 4.

Scaled causal factors contributing to Khao Lak's vulnerability following Turner et al.'s (2003) vulnerability framework.


An examination of Khao Lak's natural and developmental characteristics revealed two interlinked factors that heightened the primarily coastal-based community's exposure to the tsunami: flat coastal terrain lacking environmental defences and inappropriate coastal development.

Nature of the physical terrain.  The nature of the coastal terrain where much tourism development is found (Murphy & Bayley, 1989) is a key contributor to Khao Lak's exposure to coastal hazards (senior Thai researcher, Thailand Institute of Scientific And Technological Research, pers. comm., Bangkok, 29 June 2005). Khao Lak's tourism facilities are concentrated along a strip of flat land that extends 2 km inland to the foot of an escarpment. This, along with the clearing of the original deep-rooted forest, grasslands and rubber plantations, heightened the coastline's susceptibility to erosion and left the built environment with no buffer against the force of the waves (Thai environmentalist, Toward Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance (TERRA), pers. comm., Bangkok, 29 June 2005). Developments on higher ground in the hills fronting Khao Lak Beach sustained little damage.

Placement and type of development.  Jeff McNeely, chief scientist of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), attributed the enormous loss of life from the 2004 tsunami to the human intrusion on natural shorelines typified by theinappropriate developments that line the Indian Ocean coastal rim (Bangkok Post, 2004). In Khao Lak, the proximity of many resorts to the flat exposed beach – sited to capitalize on the foreshore terrain and beach views – coupled with the types of structures built, clearly heightened the physical exposure to coastal hazards.

Provincial building regulations stipulated a 30-m setback from the natural vegetation line but did not include structural codes (government officer, Khuk Khak Subdistrict, pers. comm., Khao Lak, 8 July 2005). Smaller structures (mainly bungalow clusters) were largely built out of wood while many larger resorts were constructed from concrete. The pattern of destruction caused by the tsunami indicates the unsuitability of the beach-facing developments in Khao Lak. Entering the buildings through the large sea-fronting windows, the tsunami waves demolished the wooden structures and gutted the concrete structures. Concrete buildings constructed perpendicular to the shoreline, however, remained structurally intact. Ensuring that safety standards are not compromised to fulfil tourist demands for water views is a continuing challenge for Thai tourism communities and planners.


According to Adger (2003) and Hewitt (1997), a system's ability to absorb external shocks and recover rests with the robustness and effectiveness of preexisting governance systems and social networks that control a community's access to resources. Findings confirm that Khao Lak's sensitivity was heightened by factors relating to the local private sector's differential access to resources, the aptitude of governance structures and agendas of stakeholders who work through these structures, as well as the destination's dependency on highly seasonal tourism flows.

Limited livelihood options and seasonality.  Livelihood diversification is a key strategy in reducing vulnerability against multiple shocks (Moser et al., 2001). Prior to the commencement of tourism development in 1988, the greater Khao Lak area was characterized by sparsely populated villages that derived livelihoods from rubber and fruit plantations, and subsistence fishing. Tourism created new opportunities for people to start up businesses that provided hundreds of jobs (Khao Lak SME Group representative, pers. comm., Khao Lak, 9 July 2005). However, the rapid development of lucrative tourism options along the narrow coastal strip dramatically reduced the attraction and prospects of traditional livelihoods, leaving little land for plantations. Only a minority of local operators concurrently engage in alternate businesses in the neighbouring town of Takuapa or plantations nearby (MK, restaurant and bungalow owner, pers. comm., Khao Lak, 13 July 2005).

Khao Lak's vulnerability is further exacerbated by being dependent on highly seasonal tourism business accruing from a ‘pristine’ environmental image, one that was shattered by the tsunami. Occuring at the height of the tourism season, this greatly diminished the community's annual earnings (Thai environmentalist, TERRA, pers. comm., Bangkok, 29 June 2005). The Thai government's decision to divert all remaining business to unaffected destinations across the country compounded Khao Lak's financial losses. While this strategy helped to stabilize national tourism numbers and retain high levels of GDP, Khao Lak business owners believed that it marginalized them further.

Uneven access to economic capital and insurance.  Khao Lak's tourism boom saw many people in the greater Takuapa District invest all their accessible financial capital from savings, land sales or previous business ventures into small tourism ventures, re-investing the profits to expand these over time (Phang Nga Tourism Association representative, pers. comm., Khao Lak, 9 July 2005). This strategy left many smaller business owners with limited savings and a reduced capacity for recovery, while larger investors with preexisting bank loans were left with no immediate means to meet repayments (Khao Lak SME Group representative, pers. comm., Khao Lak, 9 July 2005). Compounding business recovery efforts further was the typical lack of insurance coverage, purportedly seen by most entrepreneurs as an unnecessary business cost. Larger resorts with access to outside financial backing and the benefit of insurance policies still experienced economic shortfalls; payouts were insufficient to cover the rebuilding costs (PY, resort owner, pers. comm., Khao Lak, 11 July 2005). But the hardest hit were the industry employees who were left with no jobs, no land to sell or rebuild on and few other local livelihood options (SO, tour operator, pers. comm., Khao Lak, 12 July 2005). While officially registered employees qualify for social security compensation entitlements, many in the tourism sector, including Burmese construction workers and those in the lowest paying jobs, are undocumented (United Nations Environment Programme representative, pers. comm., Bangkok, 5 July 2005).

Weaknesses in governance structures and processes.  The contingent basis of policy formulation and implementation in Thailand were a major contributing factor to Khao Lak's vulnerability. While the Ministry of Tourism and Sports oversees the direction of tourism policy at the national level, the decentralization of tourism planning strategies in 2003 allows provincial and local governments to implement strategies suited to localized needs and resources (Brickshawana, 2003; The Nation, 2005a). Though a positive step towards localized empowerment, the necessary logistical support for this is lacking. Phang Nga provincial officials have limited capacity to oversee the local implementation of tourism planning strategies while subdistrict-level authorities lack the expertise, power and often political will to implement and enforce these strategies (The Nation, 2005a; Tourism Authority of Thailand representative, pers. comm., Phuket Town, 7 July 2005). Such shortcomings undermined the enforcement of planning regulations on beachfront developments prior to the tsunami.

Discussions with national and local stakeholders alike confirmed that widespread corruption at the local level compounded these governance shortcomings. Stakeholders with money and political connections successfully ‘secured’ approvals for developments contravening planning regulations – most conspicuously, the unabated construction of hotels within the 30-metre setback line (government official, Khuk Khak Subdistrict, pers. comm., Khao Lak, 8 July 2005; PY, resort owner, pers. comm., Khao Lak, 11 July 2005). Corruption frequently includes government officials who belong to the local elite; they not only benefit financially from unofficial ‘additional’ payments, but also use their positions to partake in illegal development (WK, tour operator, pers. comm., Khao Lak, 10 July 2005; PY, resort owner, pers. comm., Khao Lak, 11 July 2005). The fear of negative political consequences that collectively discourages challenges to well connected stakeholders works to strengthen this alternate governance system and heighten vulnerability.

Lack of disaster awareness and preparedness. Cassedy (1991) and Murphy and Bayley (1989) state that tourism businesses and industry organizations are often ill-prepared for disaster situations, particularly in high risk areas where potential impacts of hazards are regularly played down for marketing purposes. This was the case for Khao Lak. Community members interviewed remained largely unaware of the threat natural hazards posed to the Andaman Coast, an ignorance fostered by the routine suppression or official denials of hazard predications and warnings. For example, a warning issued in 1998 by the Meteorological Department detailing the likely threat tsunamis posed to the Andaman Coast was reported in the local Phuket and Phang Nga newspapers (WK, tour operator, pers. comm., Khao Lak, 10 July 2005; RB, tour guide, pers. comm., Khao Lak, 19 July 2005). However this was immediately refuted by the Thai government because the potential ramifications upon tourism flows to Phuket and the surrounding destinations were considered too costly (The Nation, 2005a). This same reason was cited for the failure of the Meteorological Department to issue an immediate tsunami warning early on the morning of 26 December 2004 (The Nation, 2005b). In this case, economic and politically loaded decisions to withhold vital information on coastal risks not only contributed greatly to the number of lives lost, but, with hindsight, also incurred far more costly socioeconomic ramifications. This demonstrates the extent to which the agendas of the ruling national elite directly influenced hazard vulnerability at the local scale.


Resilience is a direct expression of the strength of the coupled human–environment system reflecting its self-organization, learning and adaptive capabilities (Carpenter et al., 2001). As Khao Lak recovers from the impacts of the tsunami, the importance of strong governance, self-organization and adaptation has become clear. The Thai government played a crucial role in distributing financial capital to aid recovery by formulating resilience-building strategies and campaigning hard to restore tourist confidence. However, these actions were undermined by the preexisting deficiencies in and preferences of Thai governance structures that perpetuated unequal resource distribution. Faced with these deficiencies, the Khao Lak community mobilized strong community action aimed at regional, national and international stakeholders in a bid to restore Khao Lak as an international tourism destination.

Strong national tourism recovery policies.  Following the 2004 tsunami, the central Thai government introduced the Andaman Tourism Recovery Plan (phaen maebot feunfu kangthongthieo Andaman), a product of multiple stakeholder input aimed at stimulating rapid and sustainable tourism recovery in the six southern tsunami-affected provinces – Ranong, Phang Nga, Phuket, Krabi, Trang and Satun (Prof Suraches Chetamas, Khao Lak Andaman Tourism Recovery Plan project manager, pers. comm., Bangkok, 4 July 2005). Three key strategies were propounded: formulating an integrated tourism development strategy, facilitating a strong private sector recovery by offering financial support and launching multiple marketing drives (TAT, 2005). While the plan offers strong guidelines for the affected communities, successful implementation is proving difficult due to deficiencies in governance structures and conflicting interests operating at various scales of social organization.

The post-tsunami tourism planning strategy includes the introduction of strict zoning regulations and building codes and an integrated road evacuation system. The new zoning restrictions and building codes include a 30-m development setback, multiple graded density zones and structural codes. However, the subdistrict and district governments lack the financial and human resources required to oversee their enforcement (Thawee Haomhuam, civil engineer, Department of Public Works and Town and Country Planning, Phuket, pers. comm., Khao Lak, 12 July 2005). Consequent violations continue to perpetuate the exposure of built structures and their inhabitants to future coastal hazards. No obvious steps have been taken to address these contraventions in governance (Prof. Suraches Chetamas, Khao Lak Andaman Tourism Recovery Plan project manager, pers. comm. Bangkok, 4 July 2005). The completion of the road evacuation system was stalled and finally halted by two factors: bureaucratic obstacles created by local opposition from multiple stakeholders and the Thai government's inability to finance the repossession of prime development land (Prof. Suraches Chetamas, Khao Lak Andaman Tourism Recovery Plan project manager, pers. comm., Bangkok, 4 July 2005). Local stakeholders adamantly resisted changes seen to negatively alter the appeal of Khao Lak's beachfront and lower market share. Without local support the central government is unable to implement action plans, placing recovery plans in doubt.

The second component of the recovery plan involved substantial government-led financial assistance to promote a strong recovery. In early 2005, the Thai government endorsed the establishment of three financial assistance measures for private sector stakeholders: (i) initial emergency payments supported by the Ministry of the Interior, (ii) a Tsunami Recovery Fund (kongthun feunfu sunami) supported by the Thai Government Venture Capital Fund, aimed at assisting larger businesses, and (iii) soft loan provisions under a Bank Of Thailand ‘Lending to entrepreneurs affected by the tsunami in six provinces’ programme (kanhai nguen kuyeum samrap phu prakobkan tii dai rap pholkratob chaak sunami nai 6 krongkarn radab changwat), which catered to small business interests (BOT, 2005; 2006; UN 2005; WTO 2005b). While these measures have assisted the recovery of some businesses, application delays, bureaucratic obstacles and corrupt practices hindered their effectiveness.

The distribution of emergency payments placed under the jurisdiction of local village leaders often disproportionately benefited friends and relatives (PJ, restaurant owner, pers. comm., Khao Lak, 8 July 2005). Claims from larger businesses exceeded the capital made available through the Tsunami Recovery Fund and were subject to long delays (PY, resort owner, pers. comm., Khao Lak, 11 July 2005). Soft loan provisions were made available through the Government Savings Bank (GSB, 2005; 2006) and the SME Bank's Tsunami SME Fund (kongthun chuayleua visahakij kanad klang lae kanadyom tii dai rap pholkratob chaak sunami). Yet many small businesses were unable to secure funding because they lacked the required documentation (business registration papers, proof of assets and so on), either because it was swept away or because prior to the tsunami, they were not required to register (Khao Lak SME Group representative, pers. comm., Khao Lak, 9 July 2005). Furthermore, claim limits of THB 500 000 (USD 14 650) and THB 300 000 (USD 8780) (from the SME Fund and Government Savings Bank respectively) were too low to make a substantial difference to the recovery of successful small business claimants (CR, restaurant and bungalow owner, pers. comm., Khao Lak, 13 July 2005).

The only other financial resources available for reconstruction were via commercial bank loans, family support and alternate livelihood sources. Preexisting loans held by some of the larger business owners coupled with doubts regarding Khao Lak's future financial viability limited the success of new applications (Phang Nga Tourism Association representative, pers. comm., Khao Lak, 9 July 2005). This reluctance to reinvest and finance rebuilding negatively affects Khao Lak's image as a tourist destination. While those with multiple businesses or livelihood sources were more able to aid their own recovery, the majority had to turn to family and friends families for support where possible.

The final component of the Andaman Tourism Recovery Plan concerned the restoration of consumer confidence and tourism flows to pre-tsunami levels. The Tourism Authority of Thailand was responsible for restoring consumer confidence on behalf of all the affected destinations by hosting familiarization trips for international and Thai tour operators and travel agents to affected areas, running aggressive promotional campaigns and offering discount packages (TAT, 2005). These promotions did prove effective for Phuket and Krabi (about 171 km south of Khao Lak). Khao Lak, however, was not included as, given the extent of damage sustained, recovery was thought unlikely (Tourism Authority of Thailand representative, pers. comm., Phuket, 7 July 2005). These preferences based on economic reasonings have resulted in the uneven distribution of financial and political support among affected communities, stimulating recovery in established destinations while heightening vulnerability levels in others – most notably Khao Lak.

Strong local representation.  Disaster outcomes can also create opportunities for political reorganisation, solidarity and activism, and social transformation (Oliver-Smith, 1996). Much of Khao Lak's resilience is based on the strength, self-organization and adaptive capabilities of local groups. The Phang Nga Tourism Association (samakhom kanthongthieo changwat Phang Nga) and the Khao Lak SME Group were instrumental in petitioning the central government for more funding to hasten the rebuilding process, influencing development plans and accessing core markets to restore confidence and business. The skilful use of multiscaled actions by both parties in securing more capital resonates strongly with relational scale theory: recognizing scale as a fluid expression of power creates multiple opportunities for social transformation (Ellem, 2002; Herod & Wright, 2002; Howitt, 2003).

The Phang Nga Tourism Association (representative, pers. comm., Khao Lak, 9 July 2005) used its weekly meetings with the provincial governor to air grievances over delays and the uneven distribution of financial resources and used its close connections with the local parliamentary member (a former president of the association) to voice opinions regarding the future planning strategy for Khao Lak at the national level. Set up by a locally resident German business owner in direct response to the tsunami, the Khao Lak SME Group (representative, pers. comm., Khao Lak, 9 July 2005) successfully sourced additional funding from key markets including Germany through a Khao Lak accommodation website ( and distributed this equally among its members. The establishment of this group brought stability to many small business owners who lost everything and, by creating new landscapes of power and opportunity, heightened the community's adaptive capacity and resilience.

To restore consumer confidence, Phang Nga Tourism Association representatives successfully gained marketing support, particularly international brochure exposure, through long-established European partnerships that had facilitated Khao Lak's pre-tsunami boom – for example, although business for 2005 was diverted to other Thai destinations, Thomas Cook featured medium and large resorts in Khao Lak for the 2006 season (PY, resort owner, pers. comm., Khao Lak, 11 July 2005). Small resort owners continue to reach their market – the independent traveller – through locally controlled websites and guidebook exposure (WK, tour operator, pers. comm., Khao Lak, 10 July 2005). As the founder of the Khao Lak SME Group (Richard Doring, pers. comm., Khao Lak, 30 August 2005) pointed out, smaller resorts had greater control over their marketing tools and strategies and were more resilient in this respect than their larger counterparts.

Resilient markets and clientele.  The resilience of Khao Lak's tourism community is not solely based on its capacity to access sociopolitical and economic resources but also on the resilience and loyalty of their European market base. The business community's focus on building close relationships with clients has created a strong repeat client base, ranging from 20 per cent for larger resorts to 80 per cent for some smaller resorts. Loyal clientele, returning with family and friends, have proved instrumental in Khao Lak's recovery (Khao Lak SME Group representative, pers. comm., Khao Lak, 9 July 2005). Access to this type of social capital further strengthens the community's resilience against external shocks.

Early warning system: a key component of tourism's recovery plan.  The establishment of the UNESCO-led Indian Ocean Early Warning System was heralded by the government and tsunami affected communities as a crucial tool for increasing preparedness against future shocks, and helping to reassure tourists and hasten recovery (UN, 2005). In Thailand, the Department for Disaster Mitigation And Prevention and Ministry of Interior had oversight of its implementation in the six affected southern provinces. Functioning towers were erected in Phuket and Krabi by July 2005, but not until December 2005 in Khao Lak, well into the high season. No explanation was given for the delay, which caused some anger and frustration in the community and, among those interviewed, reinforced the government's perceived preference for restoring tourist confidence in the more lucrative neighbouring destinations. Some interviewees also attributed this to the ineffectiveness of the subdistrict and district authorities in communicating the concerns of the community to the national level. Whatever the reasoning, installation delays left the community vulnerable to possible tsunami threats and hindered their efforts in attracting tourism business back to Khao Lak.

Natural resource management. Adger et al. (2005) stress the need to complement sociopolitical measures with strategies that enhance the capacity of ecosystems to regenerate and adapt to hazardous conditions, particularly in sensitive coastal zones where 23 per cent of the world's population live. To counteract the physical exposure of the open terrain and buffer the built environment against future wave surges, the replanting of native trees and grasses along Khao Lak's eroded beaches was undertaken by the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources (DMCR representative, pers. comm., Takuapa, 8 July 2005). Casuarina and Pandanaceae trees were chosen because their root systems prevent further erosion and their presence creates a natural barrier against storm surges or tsunami impacts. As a major driver of change in coastal areas, tourism ironically has the capacity to decrease resilience through the destruction of the ecological resource base that it relies upon for its success. Increasing the biophysical resilience also underpins the sustainability of tourism development and livelihoods.


The findings presented in this paper answer one fundamental question: what sociopolitical and environmental conditions contributed to the vulnerability of Khao Lak's tourism community to the impacts of the 2004 tsunami? In line with other tourism research (Richter & Waugh, 1986; Sönmez et al., 1999; Knox & Marston, 2004; Ritchie, 2004; Méheaux & Parker, 2006), findings from Khao Lak confirm that its vulnerability stems from a high reliance on place-based and seasonal tourism. The tsunami ruined Khao Lak's highly marketable image as a peaceful haven for European winter travellers. The heavy reliance on the marketing strategies of international tour operators leaves many medium and larger businesses with little control over the recovery of their market; small businesses that access their market base through locally controlled websites and guidebooks retain more control. That said, the findings categorically show that the causes underlying the vulnerability of tourism communities are much more complex than the tourism literature acknowledges.

Analyzed through the theoretical lens of the sustainability vulnerability framework (Turner et al., 2003), relational scale and place, Khao Lak's vulnerability can be traced to 13 environmental and sociopolitical factors that collectively contribute to the exposure, sensitivity and resilience of the community. These factors are complex outcomes of inextricably linked social norms and developmental and governance processes that have evolved over space and time. Underlying these processes are the competing and politically charged agendas and scaled actions of government and industry stakeholders.

An examination of the Thai government's Andaman Tourism Recovery Plan and community responses clearly demonstrate the role that power distribution and political preferences play in influencing the uneven distribution of resources and vulnerability. While the plan is designed to benefit the six affected provinces equally, preexisting weaknesses in governance structures and processes coupled with national and subdistrict governmental preferences simultaneously strengthened some communities while marginalizing others. The failure to acknowledge and address these governance weaknesses not only compounds Khao Lak's vulnerability to future stresses, but also inhibits the long-term sustainability goals of the regional recovery plan. Four years after the tsunami, corruption along with limited governmental capacity and financial constraints at the subdistrict level are compromising the implementation and enforcement of redevelopment regulations designed to decrease physical exposure to tsunamis and storm surges. Limited access to credit continues to hinder full redevelopment while compounding debt and lower tourist earnings have forced some business closures (Calgaro et al., forthcoming). Given the limited success of government interventions, the Khao Lak community drew support from the strong and multiscaled actions of provincial and local tourism organizations. Instigated at the local level, these actions permeated through to the regional, national and international level to create a network of sociopolitical and financial supports that, in turn, strengthened the community's adaptive capacity and resilience. This demonstrates the importance of community-driven actions that both respond to immediate needs and create new landscapes of power, recognition and opportunity.

A deeper awareness of the underlying causes of Khao Lak's vulnerability together with the formulation of a tourism vulnerability framework has implications for both Khao Lak and the wider tourism community. First, an improved understanding can better inform the design and facilitate the implementation of appropriate resilience building actions that are aimed at addressing the root causes of destination vulnerability. Second, the scaled causal factors presented in Figure 4 provide a blueprint for understanding the vulnerability of other tourism communities facing similar livelihood restrictions. Third, the tourism vulnerability framework presented in this paper provides tourism communities with an analytical tool for analyzing their unique sociopolitical conditions. But given the exploratory nature of this work, more research is required to further develop, evaluate and refine the framework and substantiate the drivers of vulnerability in tourism communities.

With this in mind, it is recommended that a full-scale vulnerability assessment of the affected destinations covered by the Andaman Tourism Recovery Plan be undertaken. The advantages of such an assessment are threefold. First, it adds longitudinal depth to the analysis of vulnerable tourism communities. Second, it facilitates the identification of commonalities and place-specific differences that influence different patterns of vulnerability in the Andaman region. Finally, it creates an opportunity for reevaluating and refining the theoretical framework and enables broader conclusions to be made regarding the drivers that underlie the vulnerability of tourism communities. Tourism does have the potential to create economic growth and alleviate poverty in regions facing resource scarcity. Incorporating vulnerability assessment into tourism development strategies will ensure that these are achieved in a more sustainable way.


The research presented in this paper builds on the fieldwork conducted by the lead author (Calgaro, 2005) as part of a BA honours thesis. We gratefully acknowledge constructive feedback on an earlier draft from Dale Dominey-Howes (University of New South Wales) and Robert Fagan (Macquarie University) as well as Frank Thomalla (Stockholm Environment Institute) and Fiona Miller (University of Melbourne), and that of the anonymous SJTG reviewers.


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    As of April 2008, room capacity had increased to 3225 (Phang Nga Tourism Association representative, pers. comm., Khao Lak, 5 May 2008).