It seems possible that the type and amount of beachfront development in Southeast Asian resort towns had some bearing on how much damage the tsunami did:
"Places that had healthy coral reefs and intact mangroves were far less badly hit than places where the reefs had been damaged and the mangroves ripped out and replaced by beachfront hotels and prawn farms," said Simon Cripps, director of the Global Marine Programme at the environment group WWF Internationational.Makes sense to me. In most cases, good planning means allowing oneself to be limited by natural conditions. For instance, you really don't want to build on landfill or reclaimed wetlands in earthquake country, because the ground liquefies when it starts shaking. And in general, the long-term economic value of intact, clean wetlands is greater than that of development.
"Coral reefs act as a natural breakwater and mangroves are a natural shock absorber, and this applies to floods and cyclones as well as tsunamis," he said in an interview from Geneva.
He compared the outcome of the December 26 tsunami in the Maldives, the low-lying archipelago which emphasises good coral management in its policy of upmarket tourism; and the Thai resort of Phuket, where mangroves and a coastline belt have been replaced by aquaculture and a hotel strip.
Both places were swamped and suffered severe economic damage. In the Maldives, just over 100 people have been counted as dead and missing in a populace of 270,000; in Phuket, where there is a roughly similar size of population at peak season, the toll is nearly 1,000.
This article also says something about the potentially debasing nature of tourism. When a country destroys its scenic attractions in order to accomodate more guests and services, it loses some of its appeal, and attracts the type of tourists who are less likely to care if Phuket, Thailand looks pretty much like Palm Beach, Florida. This becomes a vicious circle; the more tourists you get who have low expectations about natural attractions, the less need there is for preserving them. As such towns become more crowded and developed, they become less desirable as destinations; revenues drop, and problems like prostitution and crime increase. Therefore, countries that protect the things that make them special, and limit tourism based on a sustainability model, are likely to earn far more tourism dollars over the long term than countries that try to pack people in like sardines.
And, it seems, they may even be better able to withstand natural disasters.