Mae Hong Son eyes rainy season revival

Mae Hong Son eyes rainy season revival

Heavy smog can be seen in Mae Hong Son's Khun Yuam district on Tuesday. (Picture courtesy of TeawMaehongson Facebook Page)
Heavy smog can be seen in Mae Hong Son's Khun Yuam district on Tuesday. (Picture courtesy of TeawMaehongson Facebook Page)

With tourism bookings plunging in Mae Hong Son amidst heavy smog and flight cancellations, the province is hoping to revive the market during the rainy season, with higher expenditure to compensate for losses during the hot season.

Phanuwat Khatnak, director of the Tourism Authority of Thailand's (TAT) Mae Hong Son office, said the smog stemming from forest fires has affected tourism sentiment, with travellers having pivoted to seaside destinations since the end of February.

Bangkok Airways, the only commercial airline that serves this route via Lampang from Bangkok, temporarily suspended its flights until the end of March due to low visibility from the heavy smog.

Forest fire hotspots were still reported across the province, while the intense level of PM2.5 made the province one of the most-polluted areas in the world.

Mr Phanuwat said the average occupancy rate in March was estimated to have dropped to 50%, compared to over 80% in January, and 60% in February.

He said bookings in April and during the Songkran holiday would remain the same at 50% as there was still uncertainty over haze issues, while the hot climate might persuade tourists to choose seaside destinations.

"Many tourists are still monitoring the smog situation before booking a trip to Mae Hong Son during Songkran. TAT will continue working with partners to host several celebrations, aiming to accelerate decisions," he said.

Mr Phanuwat said bookings should significantly pick up in May -- the rainy season when both foreign and domestic tourists look for nature trips, such as river tours and rice terrace visits.

In early March, Bangkok Airways' flights to Mae Hong Son recorded more than a 65% load factor, showing a satisfiable demand for the province, he said.

The office has targeted a 10-15% increase in tourism spending this year as the agency pushes new travel routes and festive events to boost the number of trips and the average length of stays.

According to the Tourism and Sports Ministry, Mae Hong Son gained 1.1 million tourists in 2023, generating over 5.8 billion baht, with 20% of them foreigners. The number surpassed the 1.09 million tourists and 5.3 billion baht revenue seen in 2019.

Sinsamut Phromsuwan, president of the Pai Tourism Business Association, said the government should urgently solve the smog issue to improve the province's tourism image and sentiment.

Given the government aims to make Thailand an aviation hub, the association would like the government to consider improving Pai Airport by expanding the length of runway from 900 metres to 1,800 metres, as Pai is the most visited town in Mae Hong Son, said Mr Sinsamut.

The longer runway will accommodate larger aircraft, such as the ATR turboprops, and attract more tourists to the province, as right now the airport is only capable of serving small private aircraft.

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