Asia Trips Still On

Agents say illness doesn't deter U.S. travelers

By: Lisa Jennings

Hong Kong travel has been hit hard by the spread of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, but U.S. travel agents and tour operators say that clients still are planning trips to Asia.

Last week, the World Health Organization for the first time recommended the postponement of non-essential travel to Hong Kong and the Guangdong province of China, in part because international travelers have helped spread the illness. As of April 2, at least 2,223 people were reported to be sick and 78 had died from the disease.

Several cases of transmission among air passengers have been reported, which has airline officials on high alert. Last week an American Airlines flight from Tokyo was temporarily quarantined in San Jose, Calif., after three passengers complained of symptoms. SARS was not found.

The new WHO travel advisory brings the international organization more in line with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which included all of mainland China, Singapore and Hanoi, Vietnam, in its March 29 travel warning.

The spread of SARS in Hong Kong has been particularly troubling, with clusters of outbreaks in both a hotel and an apartment complex leaving officials worried that the disease may be spread by environmental means, such as air, contaminated objects, water or sewage.

They have maintained that SARS is most likely spread by close, face-to-face contact. But sitting near someone on a plane who is coughing and sneezing is one way such viruses can be transmitted.

Lillibeth Bishop, spokeswoman for the Hong Kong Tourism Board in Los Angeles, said many tour operators are reporting the postponement of trips to Hong Kong that had been planned for April or May.

Visitors to Hong Kong must complete a health declaration card, according to the tourism board. Anyone who has had contact with a SARS patient must follow specific quarantine rules or face a fine of $5,000 Hong Kong dollars, a little more than $642, or even imprisonment.

Nigel Roberts, general manager of the Great Eagle Hotel Hong Kong, said the city’s hotels have had an unprecedented drop in occupancy rates.

At the Great Eagle, stricter cleaning and disinfecting procedures have been instituted and staff members are wearing gloves and masks to avoid infection.

“We’re all in the same boat industry-wide,” Roberts said. “We’re just going to have to sit this one out, and, at the same time, display a high level of compassion for our industry stakeholders, suppliers and our staff.”

Tour operators based in the United States say they have not seen widespread cancellations but they are getting plenty of calls from nervous clients.

Many operators, such as Abercrombie & Kent, say they are suggesting alternate destinations and working with suppliers to waive penalties.

In a Carlson Wagonlit Travel Associates poll last week, 64 percent of the 141 respondents reported no SARS-related cancellations.

Of the 30 percent that have seen cancellations, 25 percent were for Asia travel only, and 2 percent were avoiding air travel because of SARS.

But a Business Travel Coalition poll last week found that 27 percent of the 180 corporations and organizations responding had banned travel to Asia, and another 8 percent were considering a ban.

Travel agent Jack Young Jr. was in Asia when the deadly SARS virus hit the news. His wife called him from the United States, begging him to wear a mask. So when he boarded the plane to return home, he did only to find he was the only person on the plane wearing a mask.

“Everyone was looking at me, and the flight attendant was afraid to come near me,” said Young, with Clement Tours & Travel in San Francisco. “Then I realized: They thought I had it!”

Young said he removed the mask and tried to reassure his fellow passengers.

The disease has had other effects on air travel throughout Asia, where carriers are cutting and consolidating flights.

British Airways has extended its flexible ticketing policy, allowing bookings made by April 19 to be changed until May 31 for travel through the end of the year.