ou can't really blame the press for its obsession with cruise lines and the flu. The outbreak of Norwalk-like virus is in the news not because it represents a serious health threat to our nation, but, in part, because it defies the expectations of a cruise experience. No one bothers to report that far more than 200 travelers a day come down with food-related illnesses while traveling in developing countries because everyone headed to them has implicitly accepted some health risks.

And the shipboard flu makes a good news story because, predictably, it will have a beginning, middle and end that will occur within the attention span of the average newspaper reader. On the other hand, the struggle to raise health standards in third-world countries is seldom on Page 1 -- though the issues are important, progress is typically slow.

Similarly, the debate over the war in Iraq maintains a prominent place in the media and on the minds of those in the travel industry. For the industry, it's assumed that if war occurs, it will have a strong negative impact initially, but, using the first Gulf War as a guide, the impact will fade after a year. We're optimistic that, if it must occur, it, too, will have a somewhat predictable beginning, middle and end.

What certainly are of more concern to the travel industry than the flu outbreak -- and what may possibly have a greater long-term impact on travel and tourism than a war with Iraq -- are the attacks on the Israeli-owned hotel and jet in Mombasa, Kenya. Viewed in isolation, they are frightening; viewed as part of a series of attacks on the "soft targets" of tourism, they are ominous.

The attacks, coming relatively soon after the bombing in Bali, expose a vulnerability of our industry. Many aspects of travel and tourism are operated by small, private businesses that wouldn't know where to begin to protect their guests and passengers from determined terrorists.

Of further concern were the implications of a conversation I had with the minister of tourism of a small nation that is a major tourist destination for U.S. and European travelers. I asked the minister what steps the nation was taking to protect visitors from terrorism. I expected a reply along the lines of, "I can't really discuss any of the specifics." To my surprise, the answer was, "We don't have a plan per se. We really don't think we're a very likely target."

I thought of that as I read the official response of the Kenya Tourist Board to the Mombasa attacks. The statement took pains to distance the nation from the attacks, noting that the targets were Israeli-owned and that the coordinated assaults were "founded entirely on events far from our shores."

Ships can be sanitized. Iraq can be defeated. I worry that the seemingly ad hoc attacks on tourism targets may be more analogous to third-world health problems -- while advancements are made, the story may not have a predictable beginning, middle and end.

The first major step to ending the problem will be in the recognition that the story has begun, that it's very serious, and that the dateline can be from anywhere in the world.


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