The WTO is to meet with the World Health Organization to combat the looming threat of an avian flu epidemic, which could have a serious impact on international tourism. “We must ensure that people are not deterred from traveling without good reason,” said WTO Secretary-General Francesco Frangialli, prior to the meeting.
“Unnecessary scare mongering can cause a sharp drop in tourism that squeezes economies, especially those of developing nations and the incomes of millions of workers in this industry.”
He urged governments with their travel advisories and the media with their coverage of avian flu to “act responsibly to prevent a repeat of the SARS scare of 2003. We know that the avian flu epidemic is very likely to happen, but not what regions it could hit or for how long. But we do know from our previous experience with SARS that its effect on tourism could be substantial.
“The objective of our meeting with WHO is to help the tourism industry to be better informed and prepared. Our message is not to overreact or panic, but at the same time not to underestimate the problem,” he said.
Recommending governments to follow WTO’s crisis management guidelines, Mr. Frangialli said international travel would be the first economic sector to be hit if people began to cancel holidays because of fears of visiting certain destinations.
“With the media, we ask them to monitor developments on avian flu very carefully and refrain from any reporting that creates unnecessary panic,” he said. “Governments should issue travel advisories to citizens only as a last resort, and remove or modify them as soon as the situation improves.”
As one of the biggest sectors in the global economy, international tourism was worth $622 billion last year – spent by more than 763 million tourists – and is currently expanding at an annual rate of nearly six per cent.
But industry growth could easily be hit by the outbreak of another epidemic, as happened when SARS reduced international arrivals to North-East Asia by 9 per cent and to South-East Asia by 14 per cent in 2003.
“SARS is our point of reference as to just what can happen,” said Mr. Frangialli. “And the effects on tourism then were more those of an ‘infodemic’ – too much news, often unsubstantiated and speculative – than an epidemic.
“Among the points overlooked by the media at the time was that many of the deaths in the affected regions were the result of other, totally unrelated illnesses. This only served to magnify the perceived threat of SARS and instill more fear among travelers.
“There are still many questions to be answered with avian flu, such as whether it will ever become transmittable between humans, before we face the threat of an epidemic,” added the Secretary-General.
Separately, the latest WTO Regional Conference on Tourism Communications (TOURCOM) highlighted the need for both ‘new’ and established destinations in Europe to adapt their media relations to a changing scenario in which the East is gaining tourism market share at the expense of the West and to the use of new information technology.
The conference, organized by the World Tourism Organization in cooperation with the Government of the Republic of Latvia, attracted some 180 participants from 18 countries to the Latvian capital of Riga on October 12-13.