Local tourism operators hope they can benefit from the H1N1 influenza outbreak in Hong Kong and a possible case in South Korea as Thais will opt to travel domestically rather than overseas. But some industry experts warn the outbreak could cause the region’s trade to collapse.

Hong Kong and South Korea are popular destinations for Thai tourists. A total of 105,742 Thais visited South Korea and 222,383 travelled to Hong Kong in 2007. Outbound trips from Thailand to both destinations fell by 5-10% after Hong Kong confirmed a case of H1N1 influenza and South Korea flagged a possible case, which has now been confirmed, the Thai Travel Agents Association (TTAA) said.

Concerns about flu cases in the region would encourage Thais to travel domestically, said Prakit Chinamourphong, president of the Thai Hotels Association (THA).

This would help compensate for the significant drop in reservations from overseas tourists, which occurred after the Songkran riots in Bangkok.

“I think that when Thai people travel to countries that have reported outbreaks of swine flu, they will be inconvenienced by H1N1 tests, or quarantine, when them come home,” he said.

However, everyone must closely monitor the situation, given the potential for harm to travel and tourism. The Public Health Ministry should deal with the H1N1 outbreak in the same way it tackled bird flu and Sars, he said.

“People shouldn’t worry too much about this issue. I think it is still far from Thailand even though it has already spread to Asia,” Mr Prakit said. “It may benefit Thailand if we can show that we have strict protection measures to deal with the problem. This is another way to improve international tourist confidence.”

But TTAA president Charoen Wangananont said a wider outbreak in Asia could cause the region’s tourism trade to implode.

“Many travellers are concerned about this issue. Some of them have already cancelled the trips while others have delayed their travel. If the outbreak spreads further in Asia, I strongly believe that tourism in Asia will collapse,” he said.

The TTAA has advised tourists who plan to travel to Hong Kong and South Korea to take precautions as recommended by the Public Health Ministry.