December 8, 2005

Tourists Unfazed by Bird Flu Outbreaks in Asia

By Susan Fenton

HONG KONG -- The spread of bird flu in Asia does not appear to be putting off tourists but local officials are nervous, fearing a repeat of the SARS outbreak two years ago, which made parts of the region no-go areas.

The H5N1 strain of avian flu has killed 69 people in Asia since late 2003 and several countries in the region regularly report more suspected cases in people and outbreaks in poultry.

Thailand, which has reported 13 deaths from avian flu and where tourism accounts for about 6 percent of gross domestic product, is feeling particularly vulnerable.

"As yet, there is no slippage in numbers," said Montien Tantakit, who runs the Montien Hotel, one of the most expensive hotels in Bangkok.

"But bird flu hurt our business enormously in the past and we predict that if it appears to be an outbreak again, the effect will be the same or even worse this time," he said.

Bookings at the hotel fell by nearly half when the disease spread across provinces last year, he said.

This year however, as in other parts of Asia, bird flu is seen as a relatively minor risk for tourists compared with the threat of terrorist attacks and the Indian Ocean tsunami in December, which killed thousands of people and cost Thailand an estimated 30 billion baht (US$700 million) in lost revenues.

Human cases of bird flu have largely been restricted to rural areas of Asia, with the exception of the Indonesian capital Jakarta.

And as the World Health Organization has not issued any travel warnings against Asian countries, visitors apparently feel reasonably safe.

"I'm not worried about it at all," said Deborah Waller, a 30-year-old lawyer from Auckland, New Zealand, who was visiting Beijing this month. "I haven't even thought about it as the incidents are isolated, and only seem to affect people who hang out with chickens."


Travel agents and airlines across the region say they have not had any cancellations from foreign tourists afraid of exposure to the disease.

Vietnam, where 42 people have died from bird flu since late 2003, has the highest number of casualties in Asia. Visitor arrivals have surged 18.3 percent this year, topping 3 million.

Still, the risk of a widespread outbreak of human-to-human transmission of bird flu evokes fears of the devastation wrought by SARS, which crippled tourism in Hong Kong, pushing the economy there into recession. Singapore's economy also suffered.

"If there were some bird flu fatalities in say Hong Kong, we'd see a marked slowdown in tourism because the risk of infection is much greater in a city than in rural areas," said Paul McKenzie, head of consumer research at CLSA.

"Then it would depend on how the government dealt with it. If, like SARS, we were getting new cases every day then tourism would stop."

The economies of Hong Kong and Singapore, where tourists account for nearly two and three times the local population respectively, would probably be worst hit if there is suspicion of a bird flu pandemic.

An avian influenza epidemic similar to the so-called Hong Kong flu of 1968 which killed 1-3 million worldwide could cost Asian economies excluding Japan between US$113 billion and US$300 billion, says the Asian Development Bank.

Across Asia, revenue from tourism accounts for about 4 percent of regional national income and a 20 percent drop in tourist spending would reduce GDP by 1 percent, investment bank Lehman Brothers estimates.

Reminiscent of SARS, mandatory temperature checks are once again in operation at many airports around the region.

In Vietnam, hotels and restaurants have been ordered to remove all poultry dishes from menus for foreign tourists and tour operators have been told to keep foreign tourists away from areas that have bird flu outbreaks.

Such public precautions are reassuring for tourists like Pontus Ljungberg from Sweden. "We just keep normal hygienic standards like washing our hands and avoid touching birds," he said. "Thailand is better prepared than many countries in Europe. If I died here, I would die happy."

China is seen as more risky, having concealed early cases of SARS, which resulted in more rapid spread of the disease.

"Some people jokingly said to me 'don't go near any chicken farms' before I came, so people are keeping an eye on it back home," said Waller in Beijing. "But if I found out bird flu was being covered up, that would worry me."

But there is no suggestion China is covering up any bird flu cases and has been praised by the United Nations for being open in its fight against the virus, which has killed two people there and caused two dozen outbreaks in poultry since October.

Health experts say the spread of the H5N1 virus is likely to be most aggressive during the winter months in the northern hemisphere and could subside by spring.

However, SARS lasted just three months, but even countries in the region not affected like Australia saw tourism plunge 20 percent during that time.

(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing, Nguyen Nhat Lam in Hanoi and Apornrath Phoonphongphiphat in Bangkok)