Fed up with severe smog, Chinese tourists swarming to countries with 'clean air'

A tourist and a child wearing protection masks walk through Tiananmen Square in Beijing as the capital of China is blanked by heavy smog. Photo / AP
A tourist and a child wearing protection masks walk through Tiananmen Square in Beijing as the capital of China is blanked by heavy smog. Photo / AP

Fed up with severe smog, Chinese tourists are swarming abroad to countries with "clean air" on their latest travel trend: "lung cleansing" tours.

Some go as far as the Antarctic to breathe fresh air.

Many parts of China have been affected by toxic smog this winter. The central government this week ordered local meteorological bureaus to stop issuing smog alerts - a move considered by some as a way to ease public anger over pollution.

Around half a billion Chinese were left gasping for breath in December in northern China due to serious smog.

Since last December, holiday packages billed as "lung cleansing trips" or "avoiding smog trips" have been popular among residents of the country.

Air China passenger planes preparing to take off at the Beijing Capital International Airport while shrouded by heavy smog. Photo / AP
Air China passenger planes preparing to take off at the Beijing Capital International Airport while shrouded by heavy smog. Photo / AP

The most popular "lung cleansing" destination is Japan, followed by Thailand, Australia, Canada and Switzerland, according to a report released by Ctrip, China's largest online travel agency.

Other popular countries include New Zealand, United States, Maldives, Mauritius and United Arab Emirates.

Tropical islands, such as Phuket in Thailand and Bali in Indonesia, were also in-demand.

Luxurious trips to Canada and New Zealand are especially popular among wealthy Chinese families because the two countries are well-known for their nature and clean environment, said the same report.

Two sought-after packages are a 10-day trip to the western Canadian coast and an 11-day trip to the South Island of New Zealand, during which the tourists are transported by chartered helicopters.

These "lung cleansing" trips don't come cheap. The two trips listed above charge around 30,000 yuan ($6100) per person, according to Ctrip.

Traditionally, most Chinese take their annual holidays in January or February around Chinese New Year. However, demands for overseas trips spiked last December.

A spokesman from Ctrip said: "Many tourists have brought forward their holidays, or changed domestic trips to overseas trips in order to avoid the heavily polluted air."

Trips to the Antarctic were sold out on Ctrip as many travellers wished to see the "last piece of pure land on earth".

Luxury trips to New Zealand and Canada are popular among Chinese families. Photo / Dean Purcell
Luxury trips to New Zealand and Canada are popular among Chinese families. Photo / Dean Purcell

As the anger over hazardous air quality grows among the public, the Chinese central government has suspended local meteorological bureaus from issuing smog alerts, media reported Wednesday.

This has raised suspicions that the government is attempting to suppress information about the country's air pollution.

China's Meteorological Administration notified local bureaus Tuesday to "immediately stop issuing smog alerts", according to a photo of a notice posted on China's Twitter-like social media platform Weibo.

Instead, the local departments can issue alerts for "fog" when visibility is less than 10km, according to the notice.

The notice, dated January 17, was issued because local "meteorological bureaus and the environmental protection administration often disagree when they issue smog-related information", a representative from the China Meteorological Administration told the Chinese website The Paper.

"A joint alerting mechanism will be formulated to consult how to and who should issue alerts for smog," the representative said.

One single department will now be responsible for issuing smog alerts, The Paper reported.

The reports met with stinging criticism from online commentators who have long doubted the credibility of official data on air pollution.

"Before, they cheated us separately, and now, they are going to cheat us together," one person said on Weibo.

"Even though they are working on a unified alert standard, they should not stop the existing alert system," another replied.

The Chinese government has a colour-coded system of smog alerts, topping out at red when severe pollution is likely to last more than 72 hours.

The notice sets off a series of emergency measures, ranging from taking cars off the road to closing heavily polluting factories.

Local authorities have long hesitated to issue the notices over fears that they will harm economic performance, even when pollution levels are literally off the charts.

In late 2015, China issued its first ever red alert in response to public anger over the government's reluctance to take action after a wave of suffocating smog hit the country's northeast.

China's Meteorological Administration on Tuesday told local bureaus to 'immediately stop issuing smog alerts'. Photo / AP
China's Meteorological Administration on Tuesday told local bureaus to 'immediately stop issuing smog alerts'. Photo / AP

In the past, local and national authorities have issued contradictory, confusing alerts, one ordering factories and schools to be closed and one not.

Bad air is a source of enduring public anger in China, which has seen fast economic growth in recent decades but at the cost of widespread environmental problems.

In recent weeks, parents in particular have expressed outrage over the miasma that regularly affect hundreds of millions and has led to high levels of lung cancer, demanding that schools be equipped with air purifiers.

Earlier this month, many took to social media to express their anger about the thick smog that choked Beijing for over a week around the New Year but found their articles quickly deleted, a move that only increased their frustration.

"When people are gagged, the sky will be blue," said one sarcasm-laced Weibo comment.

In China, a red alert is issued if a city's Air Quality Index (AQI) reaches 500.

On the six-tier Air Quality Index values, readings between 301 and 500 are the worst and are labelled "hazardous" which means the air quality "would trigger a health warnings of emergency conditions" and "the entire population is more likely to be affected", according to Air Now.

A "good" reading is between 0 to 50.

- Daily Mail

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