CHIANGRAI – Authorities in North Thailand say they are on full alert to prevent a repeat of last year’s haze crisis, which caused massive cancellations at all tourist destinations and substantial financial losses as tourists packed their bags and fled the scene.
Last year, the haze troubled the entire north, from 21 January to 10 April, gaining notoriety as the 80 dangerous days. They were dangerous not only for tourism, but also for the health of residents who live in the provinces.
Even though far north Chiang Rai is relatively clear of haze, hoteliers report tour operators are reducing bookings as their clients say they are not prepared to risk their holiday experience.
Chiang Rai has remained clear in January although the authorities 24 January did announce a total ban of fires, both for domestic garbage and rice field burning.
But the issue is always who will take responsibility to see the ban is obeyed – the police, fire brigade? Critics say enforcement is always the weak link. Residents carry on burning their garbage and will continue to do so until communities in the North provide a garbage disposal service.
Today, some farmers on the outskirts of Chiang Rai were burning fields in preparation for the next rice planting, indicating the ban message has not got through to communities beyond the provincial capital.
Chiang Mai’s TTR Weekly’s correspondent reported this morning that the Doi Suthep mountain range was just visible in the haze. If northern destinations fail to act and enforce the ban they will suffer the same financial losses that occurred last year.
Public Health Minister, Pradit Sintavanarong, said smoke trapped in cold weather was detrimental to the health of residents in nine provinces — Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, Lampang, Lamphun, Mae Hong Son, Nan, Phrae, Phayao and Tak.
“Between 30 December to 5 January even though the smoke was not spreading, 17,219 patients sought medical treatment at 22 state hospitals in the north mostly for respiratory problems and flu due to the drop in temperature.”
According to the fire ban, residents were told not to burn weeds, grasses, trees or waste in order to avoid escalating the impact of the haze that is mainly caused by rice field burning or forest fires on hillsides to clear bamboo and other vegetation.
However, there are no laws in place to prevent the burning of garbage and no budgets in place to introduce garbage collection or biodegradable systems to deal with domestic refuse throughout the provinces.
Considering Thailand’s efforts to become a world-class destination, the lack of basic garbage disposal services could become a serious impediment in the quest for quality. Tourists expect destinations to be clean and safe. Air pollution and garbage dropped along scenic routes or at heritage sites creates an environment that is a poor fit when linked to quality hotels, dining and shopping opportunities.
Public health permanent secretary, Narong Sahametapat, said forest fires and burning trash are the major causes of the smoke and pollution, which in turn causes respiratory ailments and heart problems, as well as eye and skin infections.
Health authorities have advised the public to wear masks especially when the dust level is higher than 120 micrograms per cubic meter (PM10).
This year, Thailand, specifically in the upper north, will face dry weather over the next few months and the haze problem could worsen due to the El Nino phenomenon.
However, as of Monday the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment’s Pollution Control Department said levels were within the safety zone throughout the north.
Lamphun, just south of Chiang Mai, recorded the highest number of dust particles at 84 PM10, while Mae Hong Son the far northwest corner of Thailand had the lowest at 35 PM10.
All northern provinces including the far north Chiang Rai are in the medium zone, a better rating than last year when the haze reduced driving visibility to dangerous levels and residents were told to stay indoors.
Even the whisper of haze prompts a rash of travel cancellations mainly in the domestic travel market. Traditionally, Thai travelers prefer northern destinations to beaches, but in recent years they have gradually shifted to beach holidays and the annual haze threat could be a contributing factor.