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
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
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
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
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
Nigel Roberts, general manager of the Great Eagle Hotel Hong
Kong, said the city’s hotels have had an unprecedented drop in
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
Many operators, such as Abercrombie & Kent, say they are
suggesting alternate destinations and working with suppliers to
In a Carlson Wagonlit Travel Associates poll last week, 64
percent of the 141 respondents reported no SARS-related
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
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
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.