More than 330,000 Chinese tourists are due to arrive in Thailand next week and enjoy festivities linked to the Chinese New Year.
Chinese visitors have become the biggest source of revenue for Thailand’s booming tourism sector, with over 10 million visiting the Kingdom last year.
However, the Thais have a serious problem right now – one that doesn’t feature in their slick tourism videos: Air pollution.
Ask any resident in Bangkok and Chiang Mai and they will tell you: This is a bad time to come. Air pollution readings in the country’s two biggest destinations are “unhealthy” and it’s been like that for a few weeks.
In recent years, the dry season has always been dreaded by residents living in Chiang Mai, the so-called ‘Rose of the North’, which is usually blanketed in haze – partly because the city is located in a river basin – and the first half of the year is the time when farmers traditionally burn the stubble in their fields throughout the North and in adjacent Myanmar.
But this year has also begun badly for people living in Bangkok, which has seen disturbing levels of 2.5 particulate matter – tiny pollutants that have become the talk of the town in recent weeks.
A host of reasons have been offered: hundreds of “hot spots” where farmers are burning their fields in northern Cambodia, construction on mass-transit lines across the city, fumes from old diesel-powered buses and cars, etc.
But the Pollution Control Department has now said that local sources are to blame. That means heavy industry, power plants, traffic, public burning of trash and crops surrounding the capital. Officials have put indefinite bans on outdoor burning, but without a sudden change in the weather, things are not expected to improve in the near future.
The smog was so bad on Wednesday that Bangkok authorities ordered hundreds of schools to close. The city governor said 437 schools funded by the city should close from lunchtime until the weekend.
He also designated 1,500 square kilometers (580 square miles) of the city a “control area”, AFP reported. “The situation will be bad until February 3 to 4, so I decided to close schools,” Bangkok governor Aswin Kwanmuang said. He hoped the move would also reduce the number of cars on the road.
Aswin said factory operating hours would be limited, plus 50 drones deployed to spray water. More pollution detectors would also be set up in public areas. However, he reportedly preferred to impose voluntary measures rather than stricter law enforcement.
Rainmaking planes, which release chemicals into the air to aid cloud condensation, were deployed two weeks ago to try to create some rain to wash away the problem. City officials have also been shooting streams of water into the air to do the same, but the results have generally been dismal.
The crisis is badly timed for the ruling junta and General Prayut’s desire for another term in office, given a general election will be held on March 24. The generals have been keen to ease the country’s reliance on gas from Myanmar by building further coal-power plants, but those plans have sparked huge community opposition in towns such as Krabi and Songkhla.
And with work now on multiple mass transit lines across the capital, the haze in Bangkok has clearly got worse.
With increasing publicity about the problem, there are doubts that so many international visitors will still come and that the 10 billion baht which Chinese tourists were tipped to spend next week will really flow through to retailers and other businesses in Bangkok.
Meanwhile, for those people already booked, Thailand still has lots of scenic delights away from the haze.
But if you are coming to the Big Mango, bring your face-masks and ponder a quick exit. Fly down to Phuket or get out to an island, where the skies are clear.