WTO has warned that “unnecessary scaremongering” over the threat of bird flu could cause a sharp drop in tourism which could have a serious impact on world economies.
The WTO is planning a meeting with WHO to inform and prepare the tourism industry to be prepared.
WTO Secretary-General Francesco Frangialli urged governments 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. ”
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 says. “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 $US 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,” says 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 instil more fear among travellers.
“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,” adds the Secretary-General.