Swine flu discussion at WTTC summit: A missed opportunity?


Attendees of the World Travel & Tourism Council’s 9th Travel and Tourism Summit looking for some sort of peace of mind from the swine flu threat did not find it during the summit’s plenary discussion on the issue. Instead, a lost Peter Greenberg as moderator showed no clear focus and kept an almost antagonistic approach against members of the panel, badgering them with history of the world’s greatest health threats and going back again and again to an insignificant discussion hub in the context of the summit: the definition of the word “pandemic.” As there were no health professionals in the panel, the attempt to define a word that no one had any authority on was simply an egression exercise.

The moderator so missed the mark that the discussion turned to one member of the audience telling the panelists, and the audience essentially, that the message on swine flu should be made “sexy.” When has it ever been the case that a health threat involving possibly more deaths can be viewed as sexy?

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Many came away from the discussion scratching their heads because Greenberg failed to steer the discussion with a clear focus. The panelists included Oxford Economics chairman John Walker, AIG Travel Assist CEO Jeff Rutledge, travel journalist Arnie Weismann, WTTC president Jean Claude Baumgarten and United Nations World Tourism Organization assistant secretary general Geoffrey Lipman. It was evident from the interaction that the members of the panel tried their best to deal with Greenberg’s skewed approach to moderating the discussion, but it was UNWTO’S Lipman who made the most sense out of the awkward situation.

According to Lipman, travel and tourism’s response comes in five-fold and that industry must be cognizant of the fact that H1N1 influenza must be taken seriously but the international response, spearheaded by the World Health Organization (WHO) is in place; that WHO says that there should be no restrictions on travel which reflects science and medical research; that travelers should take basic hygiene seriously (particularly washing of hands) and they should also seek medical advice if they show signs of influenza before, during or after a trip; that the travel industry is collaborating in the Tourism Emergency Response Network (TERN) to ensure that it gets real time accurate information and has coherent messages; and, finally, that www.sos.travel contains the latest information for the travel and tourism industry.

For his part, WTCC president and chief executive Jean Claude Baumgarten commended Mexican authorities for reacting swiftly to the swine flu crisis.

Over the course of two hours, the role of the media was also a subject that kept being brought up. It was rather disconcerting to watch a discussion that once again bashed the media for its role in the coverage of a perceived threat, forgetting yet again that the media is a multi-faceted system that does not have one face. It was unfair for members of the travel trade media to witness a discussion that made them appear like scapegoats. There has been a distinction between the way mass media and trade media have been covering the swine flu threat. An informed source would notice that the travel trade media have been cautious in their approach in covering the health threat.