- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The tourism industry is taking lessons from the SARS outbreak in 2003 on how it will respond if bird flu reaches pandemic and industry-crippling levels, executives said yesterday at the Global Travel and Tourism Summit in Washington.

“Bird flu today is not a problem for travelers. There is no case of a traveler contracting the virus,” said Francesco Frangialli, secretary-general of the U.N. World Tourism Organization. “The day a pandemic will start, the picture will change totally.”

The World Tourism Organization estimates that 2 million people cross international borders daily, putting them in key positions to transmit disease. The H5N1 strain of avian flu so far has infected only those who come in direct contact with sick birds.

“Travel and tourism will be the [carrier] and the victim,” Mr. Frangialli said.

The industry could lose millions of dollars if people stay at home out of fear of contracting the virus or if parts of the world are closed to visitors. The 2003 Asian outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) led to a 19 percent drop in international visitors in Singapore and a 10 percent drop in China, the World Tourism Organization said.

Bird flu has been found in animals in 49 countries and has killed 109 persons, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports.

Travel Industry Association of America Chairman Roger Dow noted the effect of the SARS outbreak in Canada, where 43 infected persons died. International travel fell 13 percent that year, the World Tourism Organization said.

“We’re basically saying [to the U.S. travel industry]: Be prepared, not panicked,” he said.

U.S. hotels are preparing for a pandemic and are studying Hong Kong’s response during the SARS outbreak, Mr. Dow said. Actions included supplying disposable pens for guests that were thrown out after one use.

David McMillan, chief executive officer of the International Hotel & Restaurant Association, said hotels could become makeshift hospitals during a disaster.

“We will become the hospitals of the future,” he said. “The hospitals will fill up. Where else will they go … with the afflicted?”

Governments could try to contain the virus by closing borders.

“When we have confirmation that the virus has mutated [to a strain that can be transmitted easily among humans], it’s likely some governments will have the reaction to close borders,” Mr. Frangialli said.

President Bush said in November that he hasn’t ruled out travel restrictions in the event of an outbreak.

Computer models suggest that if the virus is detected early enough, a quarantine could be enough to contain an outbreak, said Max Hardiman, WHO project leader of international health regulations.

He said an H5N1 strain that can be transmitted easily among humans is inevitable.

“We don’t know where and we don’t know when it would happen,” Mr. Hardiman said. “It’s the most likely candidate now [for a pandemic] and we’re overdue.”

Pandemics historically have occurred about three times per century, he said. The last three were in 1918, 1957 and 1968.

Dimitris Avramopoulos, minister of heath and former minister of tourism in Greece, downplayed the bird flu threat to the world’s economies.

“Europe is ready to face the problem,” he said. “All governments, especially within Europe, know how to face this threat. There is no threat. The message here is … if we do what the WHO has given us instructions to do, we don’t have any reason to worry about it.”

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