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 Secretary-General Francesco Frangialli.
The World Health Organization says it has never experienced a comparable event in its history. Its rapid spread from one corner of the planet to another by travelers — 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 an airline 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.”
He adds that 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.
As well, the issuance of travel warnings by the health organization to address this health crisis, justified as they may be in this case, once again raises the issue of the content of such warnings and the conditions for their dissemination.
Furthermore, he says, 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. “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.
The organization’s research shows travelers’ 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.
After previous crises, Mr Frangialli believes the tourism industry is now stronger and better prepared 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.”
To place the outbreak into a more concise category, suffice it to quote some figures from the health organization. According to the World Health Organization, 7,548 cases of SARS were reported from mid-November to May 13. There were 573 deaths.
To put this in context, the organization also reports that flu causes between “three and five million cases of severe illness and between 250,000 and 500,000 deaths” per year.
Thus flu internationally inflicts far more serious illness and death in a single day than SARS has caused in 20 weeks.
SARS stories often invoke the great flu pandemic of 1918-19, which probably killed 40 million people according to WHO estimates. Even today, malaria and TB – which like SARS are both essentially localized and yet global – kill perhaps 15,000 people each day.
The global death rate is about six percent, in the same league as other forms of pneumonia. While the death rate is seven percent in China, none of the 101 cases in Europe and the United States have been lethal.