'Bird Flu' Fails to Slow Hong Kong Travel

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SAN FRANCISCO -- The outbreak in Hong Kong of Avian Influenza, or "bird flu," has yet to generate many trip cancellations from travelers, industry suppliers said.

The A(H5N1) virus, which jumped the species barrier from chickens to humans and led to the wholesale slaughter of the fowl in Hong Kong, so far has killed four in 16 confirmed cases, with five more cases suspected but not yet confirmed. Neither the World Health Organization nor the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control have issued recommendations against travel to Hong Kong. The CDC and the Hong Kong Department of Health currently are investigating the cases in an attempt to identify potential sources and to determine whether it can be spread among humans.

"Here in the U.S. there's not been any cancellations because we're not providing refunds on tickets," said Gus Whitcomb, a spokesman for Cathay Pacific Airways. "We've gotten a few [inquiries], but it really has been minimal in the past few weeks -- maybe 10 or 15 -- and most of the calls are people asking where they can get more information." Whitcomb said he has referred callers to the Hong Kong Tourist Association.

Marti Faulkner, group sales manager for River Vale, N.J.-based Pacific Bestour, said, "We had a few calls about it. We have a group going and a couple of ladies were going to cancel. They decided against it because there are no health warnings from either Hong Kong or the U.S."

Other major operators, including Maupintour, Orient Flexi-Pax, DER Tours and Absolute Asia, say they have had little or no calls concerning the virus. "Actually none whatsoever," said Ken Fish, president of New York-based Absolute Asia. "I've had no inquiries about it and no cancellations."

The virus hit Hong Kong at a time when the new Special Administrative Region of China already is reeling from a sharp downturn in visitor arrivals. There were 9.6 million arrivals from January through November 1997, off 9.4% when compared to the same period in 1996. The Hong Kong Tourist Association is forecasting a 10% drop in arrivals during 1997, compared to 1996 numbers.

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