Toxic Smog Turns Thousands of Tourists Away From North

People are seen wearing face masks as they walk Monday in Chiang Rai’s Mae Sai district.
People are seen wearing face masks as they walk Monday in Chiang Rai’s Mae Sai district.

CHIANG MAI — Officials said tourist numbers to northern Thailand have plunged over the past month due to severe air pollution that continues to surge across the region.

Seasonal smog in the north which residents have long complained about has worsened to the point of impacting the tourism sector. Hotel bookings near popular attractions across Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai have sharply dropped with tens of thousands of visitors turning to other destinations.

Tourism Authority Governor Yuthasak Supasorn said Monday that the problem has mostly affected Thai visitors, who have canceled about 15 percent of their hotel bookings in Chiang Mai since last month. He added that March reservations in the popular Chiang Dao district have declined by about 50 percent compared to the same period last year.

A representative of Chiang Rai’s Federation of Industries said the pollution situation this year has been “particularly bad.” He said hotel reservations there have dropped by up to 20 percent compared to 2018, adding that several visitors have turned to the south instead.

A Czech tourist who was visiting Chiang Mai last week said she “can’t breathe,” adding that she decided to head south instead of continuing to Chaing Rai and Laos as she originally planned.

“I thought I was ready for the situation because I knew that Chiang Mai would be very smoggy. I even brought a mask with me,” Eliska Kopecka said Tuesday. “At first it was fine, however after a couple of days my eyes were itchy … my throat was sore and I really started to feel the smog on me.”

Kopecka said some fellow tourists she knew had also changed their plans to go south to avoid the smog.

Suthirawat Suwanawat, general manager of Suvarnabhumi International Airport, said Tuesday that the number of tourists flying to the north from both of Bangkok’s airports has collectively decreased by about 10,000 a day in recent weeks. Numbers fall even as the world-famous festival of Songkran that normally generates tens of billions of baht in tourism approaches.

Air quality in Chiang Mai today was at “unhealthy” levels while Chiang Rai was at “very unhealthy” levels, according to monitoring organization AirVisual. The situation has been similar in several northern provinces including Phayao and Mae Hong Son. The deteriorating air quality in the north prompted junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha to fly there today.

Transport Minister Arkhom Termpittayapaisith today said about 40 flights have been grounded in Mae Hong Son since late February due to poor visibility from smog and smokes.

The problem in the north has largely been blamed on severe open burning both in and outside the country.

A public health official in Chiang Rai said yesterday that the province’s situation had greatly aggravated in the past couple of days, warning of serious health effects especially among vulnerable groups such as elders, small children and those who already suffer from chronic respiratory diseases.

Praphai Piriyasurawong, a professor at Chiang Rai Rajabhat University which has canceled classes because of the smog, said by phone Tuesday that many of his acquaintances have fallen sick. He himself has felt the effects acutely because he has allergies.

“It’s very bad. When I go outside, my eyes are irritated and I feel dizzy almost immediately,” he said. “The tear glands of one of my students have even leaked pus.”

As a Chiang Rai resident of 15 years, Praphai thinks that the situation this year has worsened because of the weather.

“There are normally thunderstorms during March which bring rain. The rain helps ease the smog levels,” he said. “It’s almost Songkran and there hasn’t been rain.”

During today’s visit to Chiang Mai, Gen. Prayuth emphasized the importance of enforcing a ban on open burning, while officials continued to deploy fire trucks to spray water across the city.

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