EVEN as tiny dust particles severely hit air quality in the upper northern region yesterday, affecting the health of many local residents, the Thai Ecotourism and Adventure Travel Association (TEATA) affirmed that the smog situation would not impact overall tourism because of region's current "off season".
However, the Chiang Mai Tourism Business Association (CMTBA) has projected a loss of Bt2 billion in tourism income.
The Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency reported that as of March 1-8 a total of 142 million rai in 10 northern provinces was covered by haze.
Mae Hong Son province yesterday reported the highest amount of particulate matter at 288 micrograms per cubic metre as of 1pm, while Chiang Mai's air station near Yupparat Wittayalai School reported 220mcg per cu/m, lower than Tuesday's 253mcg per cu/m.
TEATA president Sumitra Mutturanont said the northern smog has not dealt a big blow to tourism because of the region's current low season. However, the situation could bother local people and also disturb land and air traffic.
"If this happens in the peak season, many tourists would be impacted and even traffic maybe in chaos," said Sumitra.
Travel operators are closely watching the situation and preparing alternative solutions if the situation worsens. "This is a recurring problem at this time of the year hence operators are not too worried," she added.
CMTBA president Pornchai Jitnavasathien said about 50 per cent of tourists had cancelled or postponed their visits to Chiang Mai, leading to a loss of Bt2 billion in projected income.
This again comes as no surprise because tour operators had warned tourists in advance about the seasonal haze, he said.
The situation should return to normal ahead of the Songkran festival in April because summer storms would clean up the haze, he added.
"It is expected that more tourists would come afterwards because Chiang Mai has opened many aviation routes to other countries," he said, adding that the impact on business income was still secondary to the affect on people's health.
He urged related agencies to swiftly solve the problem and to notify the public to protect themselves.
Mae Hong Son public health official Dr Thostathep Bunthong said though the province was "most severely hit" yesterday, the number of air pollution-related sickness wasn't rising sharply.
"Most people came to hospital for eye irritation or bronchitis but there is no significant rise in patient numbers in comparison with the rest of the year," he said.
People have been told to avoid outdoor activity and use facemasks to protect themselves from the hazardous smog, he added.
Village Health Volunteers have been told to inform people about preventive measures during the peak air pollution period.
People also have been advised not to burn their fields, which is now forbidden, as it aggravates the smog situation.
The volunteers also have a responsibility to inform authorities if they find someone burning fields, he added.
Dr Rungsrit Kanjanavanit, a cardiologist at Chiang Mai University's Maharaj Hospital, painted a contrasting picture, saying the Maharaj Hospital was overcrowded with patients due to the "serious air pollution".
He said he was very concerned about the heath of residents and tourists and wanted the Tourism Authority of Thailand and related agencies to warn tourists to avoid trips to Chiang Mai until the situation improves.
He was also worried that facemasks might not be effective enough in filtering the air.
"The particulate matter with a maximum diameter of 2.5 microns (PM2.5) is so small that the free facemasks cannot filter them," he said, warning that PM2.5 may thicken blood and trigger acute myocardial infarction.
At Chiang Mai City Hall, Army Region 3 commander Lt-General Sathit Pittharat and PM's Office Minister ML Panadda Diskul joined nine northern provincial governors at yesterday's meeting to tackle the smog problem.
They were told that the smog situation was critical in six provinces and might spread to nearby provinces in late March or early April.
The discussed measures included Royal Thai Airforce aircraft spraying water in the air, more rain-making operations, as well as the creation of fire buffer zones in risky areas, including those built by Thai-Myanmar defence units along the border in Chiang Rai, Mae Hong Son and Tak.
As this problem was man-made, public awareness campaigns and people's co-operation were critical, Sathit said, adding strict law enforcement was also necessary.
Panadda said he would also ask agricultural companies to help solve the problem, as they covered many of the contracted farms in the region. He said each province required its local administrative bodies to propose solutions by March 19.