Haze hits tourism in Thailand's Phuket

Hazy conditions in Phuket on Oct 8, 2015. PHOTO: THE NATION/ ASIA NEWS NETWORK

BANGKOK (THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - The prolonged haze is hitting Thailand's holiday island of Phuket hard, with tourist operators on the island complaining about flight delays and holiday cancellations.

The problem stems from agricultural fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan in Indonesia.

Foreign Affairs Ministry deputy permanent secretary Vitavas Srivihok met with Indonesian Ambassador Lutfi Rauf on Thursday (Oct 8) to discuss the issue.

According to Vitavas, Lutfi said he was sorry and explained that the Indonesian government was now taking harsh legal action against those behind the fires.

"During the meeting we told the ambassador that Thailand is ready to provide assistance," he said.

Lutfi said the Indonesian government was trying its best to extinguish the fires. "The Indonesian authorities are applying many measures to put out the fire as our first priority," the ambassador said.

"We have been irrigating water to the burning peatland, making artificial rain and also water bombing the fire from above. More than 8,000 military personnel were called to the fire-extinguish operation," Lutfi added.

Lutfi said there were 184 fire cases and 223 individuals and companies are involved in them, with 78 suspects detained.

"We are working with international partners especially within the Asean framework to relieve the haze situation," he said.

Lutfi added that Thailand also offered help to Indonesia and he would pass on the offer of assistance to officials in Jakarta.

Lutfi said Indonesian authorities were seeking larger aircraft to carry out the water bombing. The aircraft should be able to carry more than 25 tons of water.

At least three flights from Phuket to Bangkok were delayed on Thursday morning due to the thick haze that affected visibility at Phuket International Airport.

All the flights were scheduled to depart Phuket before 8.20am, said an airport officer who joined an emergency meeting chaired by the provincial governor. The affected carriers were Bangkok Airways, Thai AirAsia and Thai Airways International.

Meanwhile, tourism operators said their business have been affected.

Kannapat Wongtikied, who runs the Phuket Sunny Hostel in Muang district, said about 20 per cent of room reservations had been cancelled in the wake of the haze.

"Several guests here have also cancelled their one-day trip-tour package. My business income has been falling by about 60 per cent," she said. She said some guests cut short their stay.

"One couple initially booked seven nights but they left for Myanmar after just two nights because of the haze," Kannapat said.

Auraiwan Phuthong, who runs the Phong Phang restaurant in the same district, said she handed out masks to her employees and her customers to help them cope with the haze. "The number of customers has significantly dwindled. My income has dropped by about 30 per cent already," she said.

Phuket resident Phongpol Ratchapol said he wore a facial mask when outside, while locals plan to rally in front of the Phuket City Hall on Friday and lodge a protest letter against the Indonesian government.

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