The dust pollution that has shrouded Bangkok since December is sticking to the city like a bad overstayer. Tourism players, who are looking to the Lunar New Year holidays in early February as a gauge of whether the Chinese market is finally back after the Phuket boat tragedy, are praying for rain.

Let’s be clear (no pun intended). The pall over Bangkok is nothing compared to the transboundary haze crises that blanketed Southeast Asia in 2013 and 2015, which were caused by peat and forest fires in Indonesia. Also, any worries that Chinese visitors might stay away can quickly dissipate if one thinks of the pollution in Chinese cities such as Beijing.

However, for some, like Yves Van Kerrebroeck, managing director of Asian Trails Thailand, this smog is the worst he’s experienced in Bangkok. Others, like Richard Brouwer, chief commercial officer of Khiri Travel who has lived in the city for three decades, have seen worse, but added those cases were not as prolonged this.

Thailand’s Pollution Control Department has publicly said it expects the haze to last for another month.

This week, the kingdom’s prime minister, Prayuth Chan-Ocha, urged residents to stay indoors as the air quality index rose to 182 at one point, higher than levels seen in Beijing, New Delhi or Jakarta, according to Bloomberg.

Some areas within Bangkok, such as Silom, are getting more smog than others, according to Stephan Roemer, CEO of Diethelm Travel Group. The pollution has been blamed particularly on heavy construction and vehicle emissions in the city.

But Asian Trails Thailand’s Van Kerrebroeck said it’s “kind of a perfect storm.”

“We do think the current situation is fueled by exceptional circumstances, kind of a perfect storm that leads to the air quality being so bad and for so many consecutive days.

“Crop burning, construction work, coal-fired power plants, exhaust fumes, industry, trash burning, wind strength, wind direction and a particular high air pressure zone have all seemed to combine and contribute to the current situation and we hope, and expect, the situation to return to regular quality levels rather soon,” he said.

The cost of pollution to tourism

Inbound travel companies interviewed said they have not received concerned inquiries from overseas tour operator partners. None have seemingly adjusted excursions in Bangkok. Hotels reported no cancellations.

David Cumming, regional vice president, operations for Bangkok, Laos and Malaysia, Onyx Hospitality Group, said business remains buoyant. But he warned that concerns will arise “if this does continue going forward especially into the peak Chinese New Year period.”

A Kasikorn Research Center report cited by The Bangkok Post, in fact, argues that foreign tourists are already shunning travel to Bangkok and shifting to other destinations in Thailand because of the toxic haze, but they could skip the country entirely if the problem lingers.

It noted that foreign media outlets have begun to report on Bangkok’s status as one of the 10 worst cities for dust that exceeds world safety standards. Bangkok welcomes an average of five million tourists a month.

The research estimates the initial opportunity cost for tourism at one billion baht ($32 million) to 3.5 billion baht ($111 million). That represents 2.5 percent to 4.5 percent of tourism income contributed by Bangkok.

The forecast is based on assumptions that one percent to two percent of foreign tourists avoid Bangkok, that those who cannot change plans shift to travel in areas free from dust impact, and that the duration of the dust problem is less than one month starting from late last year.

“The estimate of economic impact only indicates effects in monetary terms,” the Kasikorn research said. “Some impact values, including long-term impact on public health, risk of illness and impact on the country’s strategy to move towards becoming a medical and tourism hub, are difficult to estimate.”

A thick textbook of lessons to draw from

At present, inbound travel agencies and hoteliers are handing out effective mouth masks at guests’ request. Onyx is also advising guests to “spend more time indoors, avoiding highly exposed areas, and recommending trips outside the city where the pollution impact is not as severe,” said Cumming.

Industry players said if the situation worsens, they have a To-Do manual to pull out, based on experiences in handling pollution crises in the region in the past three decades.

“Asian Trails documents all crises, and we are well-equipped and prepared to deal with a wide range of situations,” said Van Kerrebroeck. “Plenty of destinations in Southeast Asia and China have been affected by air pollution in the past, even with temporary closure of airports or flight disruptions due to crop-burning practices.

“Our operational teams are obviously trained in such situations. The same goes for our team of destination and customer service representatives who are dealing with any clients that may be concerned.”

Exo Travel Group, too, has a set of crisis plans in place that run from basic precautions (for example, recommending clients to keep a close eye on air quality index), to radical actions such as evacuations, said CEO Hamish Keith.

The biggest textbook lesson learnt in the past, according to Diethelm Travel’s Roemer, is the need to give consistent and accurate information soonest possible, particularly from the authorities, to partners and clients.

Agreeing, Van Kerrebroeck said, “Controlling and managing the communication and flow of information is crucial. This can only be done by proactively setting up effective and efficient communication channels with a clear protocol and flow throughout the organization so each individual knows its role and tasks in each crisis situation.

“All of this is documented in our BCP document [Business Contingency Plan] that is implemented through workshops and trainings with all managers and staff. The BCP documents a wide range of scenarios and topics such as emergency contacts, contingency plans, first aid teams, preventative measures, emergency handling SOPs and communication templates.”

All I need is the air that I breathe

Ironically, the haze comes just as Bangkok is anointed yet again as the world’s top city destination 2018, for the third consecutive year, in a study done by MasterCard.

But Khiri’s Brouwer said tourists who are transient and stay for a few days are less concerned than locals who worry about their health.

The haze is unable to mask the resigned sighs and frowns about the state of the city’s environment among industry players. As well, opinions in local papers fumed about not just a layer of dust, but “layers of incompetence” in how the authorities are handling sustainable development.

“I think every single person who is living in Bangkok has been concerned in the last couple of days,” said Van Kerrebroeck. “Beside the contributions and actions we can control ourselves as individuals and companies/organizations, we also hope the government is taking this seriously and makes a safe environment a top priority going forward. The air we breathe doesn’t discriminate between rich and poor, or political preference, and affects all of us.”

In the short-term, the government and officials are limiting truck entry to the city and seeding rain clouds.

Prime minister Prayut also told local reporters that he had ordered the relevant ministries to enforce the use of more environment-friendly B20 Biodiesel, and to deal with dust from construction sites and crop-burning.

But are these measures enough to bring back the smiles?

Photo Credit: Pollution is threatening Bangkok's tourism industry — and the health of residents. This photo was taken in early 2018. Bloomberg