• Swine flu creates pandemic of fear

Despite huge fears, swine flu has had comparatively little impact on the travel and tourism industry outside of Mexico.

While the official status remains level 5 – imminent pandemic – all restrictions have been lifted in Mexico City with the mayor stating everybody can now "calm down".

The outbreak has caused considerable debate within the World Health Organisation. The UN agency was quick to raise the threat level to 5, one below the highest level of pandemic.

But despite the virus spreading to different continents, the usual point at which the threat level is raised to 6, WHO has maintained level 5.

The deputy general director of WHO, Dr Keiji Fukuda, said at the weekend that the organisation had to walk a fine line between not raising panic and not being complacent.

At the World Travel & Tourism Council annual summit held this month, many delegates felt that the WHO had, with the help of the media, raised panic.

"We have seen governments take unprecedented steps – in many cases due to uncertainties about the implications of the swine flu epidemic – that are fuelling fears about travelling in general," said WTTC's president and CEO Jean-Claude Baumgarten.

"Not only have governments overreacted either. The public concern generated by misguided headlines in some media has inevitably affected travel and tourism demand," he added.

But this is a dangerous area for the industry to dabble. As Geoffrey Lipman, assistant secretary general of the World Tourism Organisation acknowledged during a debate at the summit, there remains a significant threat from a potential second wave.

John Walker, chairman of Oxford Economics, which has recently completed research for the WTTC on the potential impact of swine flu, said the worst case scenario could see a 25% to 30% downturn in tourism as a result of a pandemic.

The outbreak of SARS in 2003 which spread out of China impacted the travel and tourism economy by about $25bn, estimates Walker. Were the current swine flu to mutate into something more serious and spread like the Spanish flu of 1918 then the impact could be $2,200bn.

As it stands today, swine flu has led to 86 deaths and infected just over 12,000 people. SARS led to 774 deaths but infected just over 8,000 people. Clearly, a more virulent strain of swine flu would have already killed more people than SARS.

 

HA Perspective: Epidemics, like terrorism or natural disasters, are, to borrow from Donald Rumsfeld, a known unknown. We know the threat is there but we have no real idea of when, how or to what scale the impact will be.

Operators need to have procedures in place to cope with the impact – both in terms of the immediate threat and for any sudden drop off in trade. A sensible level of insurance is also essential.

But beyond these measures, it is hard to see what else the industry can do. Publicly castigating an alarmist media or government response could dangerously backfire and cause severe damage to the reputation of the industry.

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