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Singapore tourism steps up guard against haze

A tour group wearing masks poses for a photograph in front of the haze covered skyline on June 2013 in Singapore.
Chris McGrath | Getty Images
A tour group wearing masks poses for a photograph in front of the haze covered skyline on June 2013 in Singapore.

While the skies in Singapore has remained smog-free one month into its annual haze season, its tourism sector is bracing itself for a recurrence of last year's severe air pollution, with precautionary measures already in place island-wide.

Drifting smoke from neighboring Indonesia is an annual affair during the dry months of June to September due to the agricultural slash-and-burn practices during harvesting, but many Singaporeans and businesses were caught unprepared when smog pollution reached hazardous level last June, hitting a 16-year high.

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With Indonesia's disaster agency issuing recent warnings of a surge in forest fires in western Sumatra and amid forecasts that this year's haze could be exacerbated by the El Nino effect, industry players tell CNBC that they are taking no chances. Many have put in place contingency plans to combat potential pollution-related disruptions.

Aside from alternative work arrangements, travel agency Dynasty Travel said they have a variety of indoor itineraries to fall back on in the event of hazardous air conditions.

"Last year, we had a tour group who had to cancel a trip to the Singapore flyer so this year if the same happens, we'll make arrangements to [restaurant and bar] '1-Altitude' which is indoors and they can still view the city scenery," said Alicia Seah, director of Marketing Communications at Dynasty Travel.

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"For our M.I.C.E groups, we have in place art and craft, baking classes and inspirational talks if outdoor team games which require physical exertion need to be canceled," Seah added.

While Dynasty Travel saw minimal cancellations last year, it suffered a significant slowdown in bookings for nearly a month at the onset of haze. "If we had 20 calls per week, during the haze it dropped to five," Seah noted.

Singapore city skyline shrouded with smog. The Pollution Standard Index (PSI) hit a record high of 400 on Friday, in the hazardous range.
Getty Images
Singapore city skyline shrouded with smog. The Pollution Standard Index (PSI) hit a record high of 400 on Friday, in the hazardous range.

For tour guide Ryan Low, the heavy smog which clouded the city-state resulted in a mad rush to change itineraries and eventually, a loss in income when tour groups cancelled their trips.

"Some attractions were temporarily closed and we had limited indoor places to bring tourists to. So this year, we hope to have more flexible dining and shopping activities. We don't want to danger ourselves and tourists by braving the haze," Low told CNBC.

Hotels have also stepped up on backup plans. According to a statement from British hotel chain Millennium and Copthorne Hotels, nearly 4,000 N95 masks, along with hourly air pollution readings, are provided at its five operators in Singapore. At W Singapore, in-house doctors are on standby, reported Singapore-based hotel news website TTG Asia.

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Singapore, which prides itself on being a "garden city", deems the haze negative to its tourism industry, which constitutes nearly 10 percent of its gross domestic product. While visitor arrivals rose 7 percent to 15.6 million in 2013, the sector is going through a slowdown after the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in March which has dimmed travel interest in Southeast Asia.

To be sure, not all businesses see the haze as a bane.

Travel agency ASA Travel saw a huge jump in outbound bookings last June and is expecting a similar rise this year. "With advance warnings, Singaporeans may have set aside time to leave the country if the haze returns", a representative said.