DestinationsHit by the smog crisis, Thailand's northern tourist city sees fewer visitors and cancelled bookings and lower occupancy rates.

Hazy days for Chiang Mai tourism as smog chokes the land

The smog is currently obscuring views of Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai's temple landmark
The smog is currently obscuring views of Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai's temple landmark Photo Credit: Adobe Stock/ DragoniteEast

Chiang Mai has unfortunately become synonymous with a yearly smog crisis due to rampant agricultural burning in the region. While it typically dissipates by mid-March, this year's lingering haze has taken a heavy toll on the local community and tourism sector.

The cultural and tourism hub in northern Thailand was recently ranked among the world's most polluted cities, prompting officials to advise locals to stay indoors as hospitals saw a surge in respiratory patients.

As if the health concerns weren't enough, the city's tourism industry has also suffered a blow. Tourists have altered their travel plans, avoiding Chiang Mai and opting for destinations like Phuket or Bangkok instead.

Local tour guide Piya Sophakasemsanta said the smog crisis in Chiang Mai has gotten longer and worse, leading to cancellations of trips here. “Most tourists would make a stop in Bangkok, then stay in Chiang Mai for a few nights before spending about a week in Phuket next. But this year, many have dropped Chiang Mai from their list entirely,” he said.

“Many of my guests said they could not see Doi Suthep from their hotel rooms anymore," said Piya, referring the iconic mountainous range that surrounds Chiang Mai but also acts as a natural wall blocking the smog from dissipating at times.

Drop in hotel occupancy

Like many tourism operators in Chiang Mai, said La-iad Bungsrithong, board advisor to the Thai Hotels Association, is concerned not just about the current crisis but about the future of one of Thailand’s most picturesque cities.

“Chiang Mai’s occupancy was at 80% throughout January and February, but with the haze the occupancy in March was lowered to 40%. We think occupancy would remain the same until the end of April,” he stated. The low occupancy is expected to extend throughout May and June, the city’s low season. 

In other cities, hotel rates have gone up even beyond the 2019 rates, but in Chiang Mai the rates stay low due to soft demand.– La-Iad Bungsrithong, board advisor, Thai Hotels Association

“In other cities, hotel rates have gone up even beyond the 2019 rates, but in Chiang Mai the rates stay low due to soft demand,” she added. Moreover, spending in Chiang Mai has been affected as people and tourists prefer to stay indoors.

New hotel openings affected

The smog situation has affected new hotel openings even though La-iad said 80%-90% of hotels have opened compared to pre-Covid.

One of the most-anticipated openings, the InterContinental Chiang Mai Mae Ping is slated to open for stays from 6 July 2023. However, IHG Hotels & Resorts has declined to comment on the exact date the hotel is scheduled to open or whether the smog would delay the opening.

Several new hotels, including the recently rebranded as the Movenpick Suriwongse Chiang Mai and Melia Chiang Mai, have opened their doors in the city.

New properties, said Piya, could serve mainly domestic convention visitors especially in the government sector, with the drop in the number of foreign and local tourists.

However, the future of Chiang Mai tourism remains unclear if the haze becomes larger each year, said La-Iad. Domestic airfare is still considered expensive so industry players need to think of new ways to keep visitors coming.

“It has been quite tough and Songkran didn’t help boost spending or travelling in the city. We will just have to find new content and new markets to keep Chiang Mai tourism going.”

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