Parts of southern Thailand are being blanketed by the worst haze in years, which is threatening its lucrative tourist industry.
The bustling city of Hat Yai in Songkhla province has taken the biggest hit. At 3pm yesterday, the amount of PM10 particles, which are up to 10 microns in diameter, reached the critical level of 369 micrograms per cubic metre in the province.
"This is the worst I have experienced in my life," the city's 52-year- old deputy mayor Sumrit Boonrat told The Straits Times.
"It's considered a crisis. It's the worst in 10 years," Mr Halem Jemarican, who heads Songkhla's Environment Office, told AFP news agency.
Low visibility caused at least three flights from Bangkok to be delayed yesterday, said an AFP report. Another flight from Bangkok to Hat Yai had to be diverted to Surat Thani further up north.
This is the worst I have experienced in my life.
MR SUMRIT BOONRAT, the city's 52-year- old deputy mayor
It's considered a crisis. It's the worst in 10 years.
MR HALEM JEMARICAN, who heads Songkhla's Environment Office
Hat Yai hoteliers, already hit by the slowing Malaysian economy which reduced cross-border tourists, fear that bookings will drop further if the thick smog persists.
At the recent Vegetarian Festival - one of the tourist highlights in the southern ethnic Chinese-dominated city - hotels in Hat Yai were only 60 per cent occupied compared with the usual 80 per cent, said Hat Yai-Songkhla Hotel Association president Krit Prathanrath.
"We haven't had any cancellations yet from this present air pollution crisis because it just started. But if it persists, it will surely happen," he said.
The annual haze, which shrouds countries in the region like Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, is caused by illegal slash-and-burn practices mostly in Sumatra and Kalimantan. It has forced the closure of schools in Malaysia.
Indonesia is struggling to put out the fires even with international aid and experts warn that the situation could last beyond December.
Hat Yai used to be spared the worst of the haze but wind directions have caused the city to bear the brunt in recent days.
"Many people here are still not used to wearing face masks because the haze was not so bad in previous years," Mr Charonen Neenaum, 42, told The Straits Times by phone.
The avid jogger has decided to stop his exercise for now after a run on Wednesday evening left him more tired than usual and nursing a sore throat.
In other parts of southern Thailand, the air pollutant readings continued to stay in the unhealthy range. According to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, PM10 readings at 3pm yesterday were 172mg per cu m in Yala province, 273 in Satun, 216 in Pattani, 199 in Surat Thani and 123 in Narathiwat.
Phuket and Phangnga provinces further up north registered readings of 105 and 87 respectively, which are classified by the Thai authorities as within acceptable standards.