Beijing enveloped in smog on Jan. 6. (Bloomberg/Qilai Shen)
Toxic haze that settled over much of China during the last three weeks has triggered a flight reflex among residents, leading to the rising popularity of smog avoidance travel packages to far-flung locations such as Iceland and Antarctica.
Traveler’s online keyword searches for terms such as “smog escape,” “lung cleansing” and “forests” had tripled amid the air pollution, according to a report titled “Smog Escape Travel Ranking” from Ctrip.com International Ltd. last month. Smog avoidance tourism has become a major theme for winter travel this year, with the Seychelles, Maldives and Iceland touted as getaways with the freshest air, according to the online travel service.
Heavy smog has forced 62 cities including Beijing to issue health alerts since Jan. 1, and hundreds of flights have been canceled or delayed. More than half of China’s cities suffered medium to severe pollution on Jan. 3 during the latest wave, with PM2.5 -- the tiny particles which pose the greatest risk to health -- as the main pollutant in most of them, according to the government.
Heavy pollution stretched into the weekend in Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei province before northerly winds blew the smog to southern regions, although hazardous conditions could return after winds subside. Xinhua News Agency reported some schools in Beijing have started installing air purification systems in classrooms.
The Beijing Daily said Sunday that city officials will shut down 500 high-polluting factories and make 2,560 others upgrade and clean up their operations, while also restricting high-polluting vehicles from the city starting next month.
Northern China in particular suffers severe pollution in winter because of a combination of fog and other weather conditions that trap industrial and auto emissions and those from burning millions of tons of coal used for heating in below-freezing temperatures.
The most popular overseas destinations are island escapes such as Phuket in Thailand, Bali in Indonesia, and Jeju in South Korea, while sought-after domestic getaways include Sanya on southern Hainan island, Xiamen, and Guilin, according to Ctrip. And while the blanket of air pollution stretches from the southwest to the northeast, Beijing residents were the most eager to get away, the report said.
Tourism within China is also taking a hit, with visits to top sites in Beijing falling 24 percent to 1.84 million people during the New Year holiday period from Dec. 31 to Jan. 2, according to a statement from the Beijing Tourism Development Commission.
The reason for the decline wasn’t clear, and the commission doesn’t categorize smog as a particular cause, said an official in the Beijing commission’s marketing department, who decline to be named. A spokesman at the commission did not reply to requests for comment.
Whenever the pollution spikes higher, streets in the Chinese capital are filled with residents donning masks outside while others confine themselves to offices or apartments with air filters. Many others stoically go about their business unprotected.
A professor from China’s leading scientific think tank said media reports highlighting people’s decisions to flee the smog could scare the public and instead suggested news outlets should try to spread "positive energy".
Toward that end, Beijing environmental officials have sought to put a positive light on the situation, noting that overall air quality in the city improved in 2016, with the total number of “blue sky days” up 12 from 2015 and the average PM2.5 measure dropping 9.9 percent to an average of 73 micrograms.
Beijing's air quality is awful but improving.(Bloomberg/File)
Chen Jining, minister of environmental protection, said Friday that he "felt guilty" and "wanted to reproach himself" because the pollution had disrupted people’s lives, according to Xinhua.
He said emissions from automobiles have become the primary source of fine particles in major cities, accounting for 31.3 percent in Beijing, 29.2 percent in Shanghai and 28 percent in Hangzhou. The ministry is evaluating emergency plans of 20 cities for dealing with heavy air pollution, he said.
"The root cause of the region’s smog problems, from a long-term perspective, is the unclean industrial and energy mix, which require big changes," Chen was quoted by Xinhua as saying, noting the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region and neighboring provinces are major coal consumers and have a large number of steel, coke and cement factories as well as automobiles.
In 2014, top leaders responded to public outrage over severe pollution by adding pollution control to local officials’ list of responsibilities. That put them in a difficult position as they try to balance pollution abatement efforts with economic growth targets, especially while the national economy has slowed.
The health threat has led to a flood of complaints on social media, many of which have been censored. An article widely posted on Wechat urging people to speak up about the smog was removed last week.
"Many people say the pollution fight can’t sacrifice the economy, but nobody really studies the economic cost caused by smog," said one social media post. "Restaurants, shopping malls are mostly empty and tourism in Beijing at yearend was losing business -- and also talk about the impact on the movie industry. There’s a cinema right below my house, I don’t even want to go."
— With assistance by Sarah Chen, and Hui Li