Bird flu in Asia - tourists not bothered!

Despite concern on the part of the tour industry, the spread of bird flu in Asia does not appear to be putting tourists off visiting the area.

However local officials are nervous and fear a repeat of the SARS outbreak two years ago, which made parts of the region no-go areas for tourists.

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.

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

Many up market hotels in Bangkok were hurt in the past by bird flu and they predict business will be hit even worse if there is another outbreak.

Bookings apparently fell by nearly half when the disease spread across provinces last year.

But it seems that when compared with 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, bird flu is not such a worry.

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

As yet the World Health Organization has not issued any travel warnings against Asian countries, and visitors apparently feel reasonably safe; also the human cases of bird flu have largely been restricted to rural areas of Asia, with the exception of the Indonesian capital Jakarta.

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

In Vietnam, where 42 people have died from bird flu since late 2003, the highest number of casualties in Asia, visitors have risen by 18.3 percent this year, topping 3 million.

Nevertheless the risk of a widespread outbreak of human-to-human transmission of bird flu evokes memories of SARS, which crippled tourism in Hong Kong, pushing the economy there into recession and also affected Singapore's economy.

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 was a suspicion of a bird flu pandemic.

The Asian Development Bank says an avian influenza pandemic similar to the 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.

Across Asia, revenue from tourism accounts for about 4 percent of regional national income.

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.

Mandatory temperature checks are once again in operation at many airports around the region.

Such public precautions are reassuring for tourists but China is still viewed as more risky, having concealed early cases of SARS, which resulted in more rapid spread of the disease.

China has recently 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 expect the spread of the H5N1 virus to be most aggressive during the winter months in the northern hemisphere and it 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.

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