- The impact of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak on many tourism destinations is already greater than last year's terrorist attack on Bali, while airlines have been hit harder than they were by the war in Iraq, says World Tourism Organization (WTO) Secretary-General Francesco Frangialli.
The World Health Organization, with which WTO maintains close cooperation, has never experienced a comparable event in its history, and the characteristics of this atypical pneumonia - its rapid spread from one corner of the planet to another by travellers, cases of transmission during hotel stays, in restaurants, places of entertainment, or even during airplane trips - make it a phenomenon that is perceived to be linked with tourism itself, even though local transmission (close contact in households, hospitals and other contexts) is more prevalent by far.
Out of the 6,000 probable cases of SARS, only five are believed to have possibly resulted from transmission in a cabin, and those occurred before screening procedures and other security measures were introduced in many airports and companies.
"We deeply sympathize with those affected," says Mr Frangialli. "But although it is important for the tourism industry to take SARS very seriously, it should not over-react to an epidemic which seems to have been brought under control in most countries which had been affected." Coming on top of an already weak international economic scene, the full significance of the outbreak is yet to be known.
The outbreak's impact on global tourism activity is liable to be all the more severe since, as in the case of the Bali attack last year, it chiefly concerns the only region in the world, Asia-Pacific, that has recently seen strong, sustained growth in its flows (8 percent in 2002). Moreover, the reality of the epidemic is being compounded by its intense coverage by the media, which has led to a veritable wave of paranoia in certain countries. In such circumstances, Asian destinations that have not recorded any cases of [localised] infection to date, (India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, the Philippines, Thailand…) have suffered almost as much as the areas actually affected, China, Hong Kong and Singapore.
The issuance of travel warnings by the WHO to address this health crisis, justified as they may be in this case, has elicited protests, and once again raises the issue of the content of such warnings and the conditions for their dissemination. But it is worried that advisories from individual countries do not always reflect the geographical scope or duration of the recommended restrictions and that they often have serious consequences on the economy in general and tourism in particular, of a destination.
The WTO has announced its intention of launching, as soon as circumstances allow, an initiative regarding such advisories, which often have heavy consequences for the countries concerned.
"While governments and other institutions must assume their responsibilities in protecting citizens from proven risks, the recommended restrictions should be no broader than strictly needed to avoid creating additional problems for industries like tourism which can make such a decisive contribution to social and economic development," says Mr. Frangialli.
Predicting that tourism growth will recover in the second half of the year, he does not foresee any substantial changes to WTO's previous forecasts of an increase this year on last year's total of 715 million international tourist arrivals.
"But the industry's performance will be challenged, especially in the fastest growing region of Asia and the Pacific which showed an 8% increase in 2002," he adds. WTO research shows travellers' reactions are following the pattern of last year, with people making later bookings, a high degree of price-sensitivity and many deciding to stay within their own region or country.
To meet these changes, tourism companies have shown flexibility by switching capacity away from areas seen to be at risk, monitoring the market to fine-tune products to meet demand, and waiving penalty charges for changes in destination or cancellations.
After previous crises, Mr Frangialli believes the tourism industry is now stronger and better prepared and to recuperate from the effects of SARS. "There is increasing awareness that risk is no longer associated exclusively with specific destinations; that risk can exist in one's own backyard."