London, UK, and Florianópolis, Brazil – At a special session of the Global Travel&Tourism Summit, held in Florianópolis, Brazil, from 14-16 May, panellists agreed that, while the epidemic of the influenza virus A (H1N1) – commonly known as ‘swine flu’ – had so far been relatively mild outside Mexico, its possible return in mutated form in the northern hemisphere winter remains a serious cause for concern.Today, global travel is commonplace and large numbers of people move around the world for business and leisure.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is not recommending travel restrictions, because it believes that limiting travel and imposing travel restrictions would have very little effect on stopping the spread of the virus, but would be highly disruptive to the global community. The WHO pandemic alert is currently at phase 5 – with level 6 officially representing a pandemic.
But these designations are based on the geographic spread of the virus and not on its severity, according to the WHO terminology, which was seen as misleading by many of the delegates participating in the Summit.Indeed, speaking at the Summit, the World Travel&Tourism Council (WTTC) called for an urgent review of the WHO terminology and its classification system. “Every effort should be made to ensure we avoid unnecessary alarm,” said Jean-Claude Baumgarten, WTTC’s President&CEO. While the mantra “keep travelling” was reiterated by the Global Travel&Tourism Summit discussion panel, Geoffrey Lipman, Assistant Secretary General of the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), offered a note of caution – saying that any potential second wave of the H1N1 influenza virus could affect the industry a lot more.
Lipman’s warning was reiterated by John Walker, Chairman of Oxford Economics, which has just completed preliminary research on behalf of the World Travel&Tourism Council (WTTC) to assess the potential impact of a possible H1N1 pandemic. “In a worst-case scenario, the figures show that the magnitude of a [tourism] downturn could be 25-30% as a result of a pandemic,” said Walker. “We’re not talking about H1N1 as it is now, of course, but if it mutates and a second, more violent wave hits the northern hemisphere during the coming winter causing a real pandemic, it could cost 50-60 million jobs worldwide.”The Spanish flu of 1918-19 struck in two stages,” Walker said. “And if the same happens this time, people will inevitably stop travelling out of fear. So we can assume that discretionary spending could fall by as much as 30%.”The overall impact of such a pandemic, according to the WTTC/Oxford Economics research, could be losses of more than US$2,200 billion in the global Travel&Tourism economy, spread over late 2009 and into 2010. “This compares with a much lesser impact of US$25 billion in the case of a SARS-type crisis,” Walker explained.”One of the main problems is that we are not getting a clear and consistent message across to reassure travellers,” said Baumgarten. “There is too much information out there that is confusing to travellers, and we have little control over how the media handle the story, or over how governments react when they are scared. We need to communicate more effectively.”
Baumgarten’s comments and suggestions were endorsed by panellists and participants at the 9th Global Travel&Tourism Summit, who also advised travellers to follow the recommendations of WHO to protect themselves and others by continuing to follow simple prevention practices that apply while travelling and in daily life. Regular hand washing, normal coughing etiquette, avoiding contact with people suffering from acute respiratory infections – these are a few of the steps travellers can take.Above all, travellers should stay informed, the industry agreed. They should check regularly with www.SOS.travel or other reliable resources for the latest updates and information issued by health and travel professionals as the situation evolves.Through its Tourism Emergency Response Network (TERN), managed by UNWTO, the worldwide travel community – comprising some 30 organisations and associations representing the public and private sectors of Travel&Tourism – is working closely with WHO and sharing views on a regular basis. This will hopefully ensure that the special situation of travellers is taken fully into account by WHO and that the industry will be able to provide the best and most accurate advice to travellers as the situation changes. As of Monday 18 May, the total number of laboratory-confirmed cases of H1N1 influenza, as reported by WHO, was 8,829 in 40 countries, with 74 deaths recorded. Of these, 349 were new cases, including two deaths, confirmed within the previous 24 hours.