Asian travel picks up after Sars

Just weeks after WHO declared the Sars epidemic over in early June, travel increased rapidly in the Asia Pacific region. But it will still take time to get back to normal numbers.
     In June, travel in the Asia Pacific region was down 36 percent compared to June last year, according to the International Air Transport Association, IATA. As bad as the number seems, it was still a lot better than the 55 percent drop in May.
     “Everyone had been waiting for the Sars threat to blow over. When it did, you did all the travel you had postponed during those months,” says Hans DeHaan, regional manager for Lufthansa, the main European carrier in the area.
     This is echoed by local businessmen. Projects were delayed when travel policies were restricted, for example at Ericsson, and most travel was canceled.
     “We were affected by the travel restrictions, and some ongoing projects at customers were delayed. For instance, being a global operation, our installation technicians could not travel from Holland to our customers here. But conditions were similar for everyone and our customers were very understanding,” says Tomas Ageskog, vice president at Ericsson Asia Pacific in Singapore.
     One of few companies to actually benefit from the situation was Swedish health care company Mölnlycke. Mölnlycke recently posted a profit for the first half of 2003, helped by increased sales of protective masks and clothing in Asia.
     The Sars epidemic started in China and spread to other areas during the spring. Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and Canada were among the countries and territories affected. More than 8000 people got the disease, most of them in China. 916 people have died from the illness, according to WHO in early August.
     Apart from the health problems the epidemic had enormous consequences for the economies in the Asia Pacific, especially the travel industries. Three million jobs were lost in the tourism industry alone, according to an estimate by the Pacific Asia Travel Association.
     In the aftermath of the disease local authorities have put effort and money to get travellers back to the region. Packages have been directed to domestic travelers, to encourage people to take a holiday away from home in their own countries.
     Singapore has spent millions of dollars on campaigns. Some of them together with other Asean countries, some of them alone, such as the campaign “Singapore Roars” in television and press on main markets in the US and Europe.
     “This has been a wake up call for many, that something like this could happen,” says Ken Low, Director of brand management at the Singapore Tourism Board.
     “But it has also been an opportunity to relook at our brand. Many confused us with Hong Kong or China when the first Sars cases arrived,” Ken Low says, and gives his definition of the brand of Singapore:
     “Reliability, security, safety. Expect no negative surprises”
     The business travellers have been quicker to respond than the leisure travellers, even if a lot of the rebound has been regional. Ken Low believes numbers will pick up and get back towards normal in September or October. He expects the whole thing will be largely forgotten in a year, even if new cases of Sars are reported.
     “It would be harmful with new cases, but not as serious as the last time around. Now everything is under control and new cases would be regarded more like outbreaks of other illnesses – such as single cases of Malaria,” says Ken Low.
     Unlike China, Singapore was quick to respond with information and security measures to the new threat when it was recognized as a contagious disease. Measures those are still very much in place. Temperature scanning is compulsory in the airport and at other official places. At a tour of the Tiger beer brewery everyone has to have their temperature taken to be allowed through the doors. And the quick action was appreciated by many in the expatriate community.
     “I felt comfortable with the information and actions by the local government. It was direct and serious,” says Tomas Ageskog at Ericsson in Singapore.
     “At the time, even if you weren’t so afraid yourself, it was almost more frightening to see the fear in other people. When you saw everyone wearing masks and taxi drivers wanting to control temperatures, it was spooky,” he adds.
     To the airline and travel industries, these last years have been a continuing state of crisis. September 11, war in Iraq, bombing in Bali and Sars. And despite the campaigns and optimism, it will take time for things return to normal, according to Iata.
     “The worst is over, but the road to recovery will be long. Even the most optimistic scenario for a robust traffic recovery will not see yields returning to normal for some time,” said Giovanni Bisignani, Iata’s Director General and CEO at a Hong Kong conference in August.

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