Should we be scared of the birds?
TOURISM is the strain that unites the world.
We travel for myriad reasons: From the strengthening of the business ideal to the enlightenment of the senses. Yet over the last decade the industry has been buffeted by waves of travail. From Sars and 9/11 airlines, national industries and the individual has been forced to closely analyse cross-border travel.
And now there is a new threat. A threat whose clouds are so dark, that the coming storm might be the one that does untold damage to the travel industry. Although this view might seem needlessly fatalistic it is nevertheless a growing one.
On March 18, Egypt confirmed its first Bird Flu death, and the marauder that had seemed so distant from Mideast shores three months ago was in now a neighbour. The World Health Organisation confirmed that Egypt had reported its first human case of bird flu. Egypt reported cases of the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain of bird flu in poultry flocks last month. Bird flu has spread across Europe, Africa and parts of Asia and killed at least 98 people worldwide since 2003.
It is the virulence of this spread that makes it such a threat to the industry.
Fortunately it is this industry that has proved so resilient to attacks on its stability and continued prosperity over the years. It struggled through Sars, but eventually South East Asia pulled through; it was rocked by 9/11, but the Trans-Atlantic traffic is now back to pre-2001 levels...the consensus is: This too shall pass. And well it might, but the question we have to ask ourselves is at what cost?
“The tourism industry, having been through the SARS debacle ... they’re much better prepared and less panicky,” said Imtiaz Muqbil, executive editor of Travel Impact Newswire in Bangkok. But is less panicky, better prepared?
The implications of a cross-species pandemic of H5N1 are so far-reaching that the world must now pay heed to nature's oldest family member. The region has to now accept that with the virus closing in around it...transparency of process and method is paramount. Countries and companies (be they airlines, tourist authorities or travel agents) must band together with governments to put forth a consolidated front against the spread of the disease.
“If there’s a truly worldwide outbreak, the economic consequence would be disastrous. There’s no real way of preparing for something like that,” said Bob Whitley, president of the US Tour Operators Association.
“The whole idea of travel would be compromised and that would affect everyone... across the board, airlines, tour operators, gift shops, you name it,” said Whitley, whose organization has more 750 members who move around 11 million Americans a year. “In a scenario similar to the SARS case, you would see a lot of Americans rebooking to safer areas, but that still has a major impact. If you specialize in a particular country which is affected, you can lose 90 per cent of your business immediately.”
Vilnius: The United Nations agency responsible for world tourism is preparing for an eventual pandemic of bird flu in humans to try to minimise its impact on the tourist industry, the agency's chief, Francesco Frangialli, said.
“For the moment, bird flu is a phenomenon affecting birds, it’s an epidemic affecting animals, not people,” said Frangialli, head of the World Tourism Organisation. “For the moment there is no reason to not travel to any country in the world, provided people observe the recommendations of health and veterinary authorities.
“What we want is to obtain information in real time, to be capable of circulating this information in real time to national tourism authorities and to the private sector so they take the best decisions,” Frangialli said.
But with Jordan and Gaza now also confirming an outbreak of H5N1 the problem is getting closer. Aircraft are installing new filters aimed at hampering aerosol transmission, but that seems more a psychological bulwark rather than a physical one.
We need more dialogue to cover the potential impact of a possible outbreak on the industry, rather than maintain an “it could never happen to us” attitude. Information and education are key components on the frontline of this war and governments must hone these tool rather than blunt them with denial and fear.