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Miss Universe bikini babes snorkel to boost Thailand's ailing tourism industry

PHUKET, Thailand (19 May 2005) - While some of the 81 contestants vying for the crown held by current Miss Universe Jennifer Hawkins snorkeled along Thailand's southern coast, others visited a hospital that cared for victims of December's disaster and observed Patong beach's new tsunami warning system.

Host Thailand has promoted this year's pageant as an opportunity to showcase Asia's rebound from the giant waves, and many of the contestants from countries affected by the catastrophe felt the tug of emotion as they visited Phuket.

"It's close to my heart," Miss India Amrita Thapar told reporters of the regional recovery effort.

"These countries were affected by the tsunami, and it's a step in the right direction to have us here, not just in the beauty pageant but supporting the cause and letting people know that Asia has what it takes to move on."

Thai officials and entrepreneurs want to present the kingdom as a tsunami zone that has battled back from disaster to reclaim its spot as Southeast Asia's most popular tourist and scuba diving destination.

"The Thai spirit is very much alive and undaunted by the challenges of recovery," Kittikorn Kewkacha, chief executive officer of the Phuket FantaSea theme park, told the beauty queens.

Somsak Thepsutin, the minister of tourism and sport, said the pageant's visit to Phuket would serve as a huge plug for Thailand's beaches, which are major draws for the more than 10 million tourists who visit the kingdom each year.

"The images of a tsunami-hit island are gone," he told reporters. "It is not as it was before... and having Miss Universe here brings beauty to Phuket."

On nearby Phi Phi, scene of the Hollywood movie "The Beach", half a dozen contestants frolicked in the surf and snorkeled, but they were kept away from the worst-hit parts of the once-idyllic island, where 700 people died in the waves and much of the tourism infrastructure still lies in rubble.

Thailand's tourism industry nearly collapsed following the tsunami, which devastated several coastal communities in the kingdom and left some 5,400 people dead, about half of them foreign holidaymakers.

Contestants from India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand were among several who visited Patong Hospital, one of the beach communities worst hit on Phuket, and met with doctors and staff.

They helped a Thai brewery present a 12 million baht (300,000 dollar) check to the hospital and also observed the community's new tsunami warning system.

Miss Germany, Asli Bayram, whose country lost 463 of its citizens, most of whom had been holidaying in Thailand over Christmas, said painful tsunami images and feelings came back to her as she stepped onto the sands of Patong beach.

"It was very emotional," she said, but noted that Phuket residents were remarkably poised in the aftermath of tragedy.

Contestants then paraded onto a Phuket beach in their swimsuits -- all of them in bikinis, except for Miss Indonesia Artika Sari Devi, who appeared in a one-piece in what organisers said was her first pageant appearance in swimwear.

Artika is the first woman to represent the world's largest Muslim nation in the Miss Universe contest since 1996, when a Miss Indonesia participated as an observer. Before departing for Thailand Artika told local media she would not bare too much skin.

The contestants for the US-run pageant are engaged in three weeks of official events in the run-up to the final showcase in Bangkok on May 31, when a new Miss Universe will be crowned.