No urban place for Loy Krathong
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No urban place for Loy Krathong

The month of November, including spectacular events such as the full moon Loy Krathong festival, marks the beginning of the peak tourism period for the country, especially in the northern region.

Tourism authorities say they expect the influx of tourists to bring massive tourism-related income, as a result of aggressive promotional campaigning including visa exemption fees for visitors from 21 countries and the so-called Amazing Thailand Grand Sales Passport Privileges scheme that started on Nov 15.

The authorities expect the revenue to be in the range of 20 billion baht.

Loy Krathong, which this year falls on Thursday, is one of the most popular festivals for Thai and foreign tourists alike. It is widely celebrated in Bangkok and tourist provinces in the Central Plains from Ayutthaya to the North, with revellers releasing lotus-shaped floats into the rivers and waterways. But the festival, which has been extensively transformed, also poses a dilemma with regard to environmental and social changes. There are rising concerns that the festival, initially created by people in a sparsely populated agrarian society as a way to pay respects to the River Goddess, may no longer be relevant to urban areas.

One problem with Loy Krathong involves an enormous amount of waste from the floats that clog waterways, and unless removed quickly may pollute other water sources. Another, more serious issue is air traffic safety with regard to sky lanterns which are popular particularly in the North.

In past years, airport authorities in major tourist provinces like Chiang Mai have stepped up measures to regulate the use of sky lanterns, especially in areas near airports. A disaster could take place should a lantern get stuck in an aircraft's engine.

The problem is that the popular-yet-dangerous lanterns are themselves are a magnet for tourism.

As part of one compromise, Chiang Mai airport authorities this year decided to change flight times or cancel flights from Wednesday to Friday, the period when many revellers light and release sky lanterns. Nearly 150 flights, both domestic and international, will be affected, they said.

In total, 60 domestic and international flights are to be cancelled, said the Chiang Mai airport authorities who, like in previous years, promise strict surveillance measures. Unlike the Khon Kaen airport authorities who seek to ban the lanterns within a 14km radius of the airport at all times, the Chiang Mai officers fail to mention how they will regulate lantern lighting.

The Chiang Mai officers should be aware that their compromise can be costly and the surveillance cannot offer a 100% guarantee that the lanterns will be kept away from air traffic.

Last year, despite surveillance and other measures, the remnants of over 100 burned lanterns intruded on Chiang Mai airport. The number may be satisfactory compared to the figures in 2013, when more than 1,420 burned lanterns were found on the airport premises during the festival, but it is undeniable that the risk remains high, not only for air traffic but also for public safety as remnants of burning lanterns can wreak havoc on communities if they fall on properties and cause fires.

The strict measures may upset people in the tourism industry who want to attract visitors at all costs, but safety must prevail. It must be noted that sky lanterns, though part of northern culture, never belonged to the festival until a decade ago when local tourism authorities incorporated the festival into local calendars.

According to old lanna tradition, the lanterns which are called wao-hom in local dialect, are lit shortly before noon, as part of individual celebrations. During the Loy Krathong festival several hundred lanterns may be released into the sky.

More importantly, by tradition, the lanterns are lit in vast, empty fields away from communities. Like other tourist cities, Chiang Mai is fully developed and there is no such empty area.

It's not just the lanterns that are non-traditional Loy Krathong items. Even the flowered floats are relatively new to the celebration.

According to studies, the floats were introduced to the northern city in 1947 and became so popular that the festival has been adopted into Chiang Mai culture.

Public education is necessary to make people realise the risk of sky lanterns. The government should step up efforts to raise social awareness so revellers will celebrate the festival responsibly.

At the same time, the authorities must review all measures involving the beautiful but risky lanterns to ensure that public safety is observed.

When it comes to safety, there should be no compromise.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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