SARS Knocks China Off 'Safe' List

Travel plummets as Beijing acknowledges far more cases of deadly illness than first reported

By: Lisa Jennings

For tour operator Jim Berkeley, China has been the “flavor of the month” for the past three years.

After Sept. 11, said Berkeley, president of Destinations & Adventures International in Los Angeles, travelers saw the communist country as a safe destination a place without terrorists.

Then Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, knocked China off the “safe destination” pedestal.

Even as the highly contagious illness devastated travel to Hong Kong and the southern Guangdong province over the past several weeks, travelers were still going to Beijing and elsewhere in mainland China.

Then health officials earlier this month revealed that the number of SARS cases is far larger than initially reported.

The World Health Organization last week added Beijing, Shanxi Province and Toronto, Canada, to its list of SARS-affected areas to be avoided by travelers. The capital of Shanxi is Xian, home of the famed terra cotta warriors. Earlier recommendations to postpone nonessential travel to Hong Kong and the Guangdong province remain in effect.

As of April 23, Beijing officials were reporting 482 cases with 25 deaths. Those numbers are exceeded only by cases in Hong Kong and Guangdong, where scientists believe the illness originated.

In fact, the 2,305 cases in mainland China (which does not include those in Taiwan or Hong Kong) accounted for more than half the worldwide total of 4,288 and the numbers in Beijing were expected to rise dramatically as confirmation of more cases trickles in.

Last week, two government officials were fired after admitting to an attempted coverup, and citizens were urged to curtail travel plans for the holiday week of May 1 to contain further spread of the disease.

That news, said Berkeley, may be the clincher that kills China travel for the year.

SARS already cut his China business by an estimated 75 percent; and now, Berkeley said, he doubted he would be sending anyone to mainland China this year.

April and May are typically peak months for travel to China, but September and October are also popular. Many travelers have postponed their spring travel plans until the fall, taking the gamble that the epidemic will be under control by then.

Tauck World Discovery has cancelled tours to China through the end of May. But with most travelers choosing to postpone their travel until September and October, Tauck has added some new fall departures to accommodate them. Tauck’s three China itineraries were selling well before SARS hit, said spokeswoman Kendra St. John, estimating that sales were up about 30 percent over last year’s.

Agent Pat Horvath of Acacia Travel in San Diego said she had three “very deluxe” China bookings this year. The first group, scheduled to depart in May, have rescheduled in the fall. As of last week, the clients planning to leave in July and November were still planning to travel. But, Horvath said, other clients going to Mongolia have canceled.

Still, said Horvath, “People are really reluctant to cancel. They’re holding on as long as they can.”

Victoria Cruises has consolidated its weekly Yangtze River sailings to three in each direction from the original seven through the end of August.

However, the company said that the way it has reconfigured the dates will allow most travelers to keep their original itineraries.

Crystal Cruises also cancelled the remainder of its Orient season, including the sailing scheduled for May 23.

The ship Crystal Harmony was repositioned to Los Angeles for a series of cruises in May that officials said already are sold out.

And Crystal has announced that guests and crew from SARS affected areas Hong Kong; China; Hanoi, Vietnam; Singapore and Toronto, Canada will not be allowed to board cruises departing in May.

Tour operator China Focus, based in San Francisco, has canceled tours through the first half of June. And, so far, bookings for the fall are slow, said manager Eddy Lam.

Where other tour operators were already discussing discounts and promotions that would be launched once the fear of SARS dissipates, Lam was less optimistic.

“I don’t think price is a concern. Even if you’re offering it for free, people won’t go,” he said.

Unlike international airlines serving Asia, China Southern Airlines reported an increase in passengers during March, said the airline’s U.S. spokesman Jeff Ruffolo. April figures were not available last week, but reduced demand did prompt the airline to cut one of its four weekly flights from Los Angeles.

As China’s largest domestic airline, Ruffolo said, the company is combating SARS aggressively, including passenger screening and disinfection programs. “We’re doing everything but sticking a giant red cross on the side of the plane.”

Canada Upset by SARS Caution for Toronto

Ontario travel officials last week expressed disappointment that the World Health Organization had added Toronto, Canada, to its SARS travel advisory. WHO recommended that travel to Toronto be postponed, making it the first SARS-affected region outside Asia to be considered a high-risk destination. As of last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had not warned against travel to the provincial capital, but recommended avoiding its medical facilities.

The CDC is also issuing cards to travelers arriving in the United States from Toronto, urging them to monitor their health for at least 10 days and explaining how to seek medical care, if needed.

Gord Prisco of the Ontario Ministry of Tourism and Recreation, said it was too early to determine how SARS has affected the region, but he said health officials were optimistic that the situation was improving. “We believe Canada is a safe place to visit,” he said.

As of April 23, Ontario had 136 confirmed cases of the respiratory illness, with another 131 suspected, and 15 deaths. In Canada, there were a total of 330 probable and suspect cases; and 16 deaths.