iht.com - KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia Malaysian tour agents and hoteliers expressed concern Monday that travelers would shun the country as a gray choking haze blamed on Indonesia worsened across the country.
According to the Department of Environment, 14 out of 51 monitoring stations nationwide recorded unhealthy air quality early Monday, compared to only 10 on Sunday.
Malaysia's largest city Kuala Lumpur, the government administrative capital Putrajaya and the states of Selangor, Negeri Sembilan, Malacca and Perak were among the worst hit, it said in a statement.
The highest reading of 194 was registered in Nilai in Negeri Sembilan state, near the main airport. The official Air Pollutant Index designates readings of above 100 as unhealthy, above 200 as very unhealthy and above 300 as hazardous.
An early morning shower in Kuala Lumpur failed to bring respite, with city landmarks remaining cloaked in gray smog and visibility dipping to as low as half a kilometer in some areas.
Malaysia's education ministry has told headmasters to halt outdoor activities if the air pollutant index rises above 200 and to close schools if it surpasses 300.
Hoteliers and tour agents are worried that the worsening smog would hit tourism and affect the country's plan to woo 17.5 million visitors this year and 20.1 million in 2007.
Tourism is Malaysia's second largest source of foreign income after exports.
"The haze is not a new phenomenon but it is worse now than last year," Ngiam Foon, president of the Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents, told The Associated Press.
"There are no reported major cancellations yet but if this level of haze continues for a prolonged period, it will hurt tourism," he warned.
Ivo Nekvapil, a vice president for the Malaysian Association of Hotels, said beach resorts and other popular holiday destinations would be hard-hit if the haze worsened and urged the government to take further measures to curb the haze.
The haze is an annual occurrence caused by land-clearing fires in Indonesia, and sometimes in Malaysia.
The Meteorological Department said Monday southeasterly winds had brought the smoke from fires in Indonesia's Sumatra island and Kalimantan province.
Isolated showers and thunderstorms expected across the country this week will bring some relief but are unlikely to keep the haze away, said a weather forecaster who declined to be named because she is not authorized to speak to the media.
Malaysia has urged Indonesia to quickly ratify an agreement that would facilitate a regional response across Southeast Asia to the use of environment-damaging slash-and-burn methods by Indonesian farmers and plantation owners.
Indonesia is the only country among the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that hasn't ratified the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, which the grouping approved in 2002.