SARS stigma harmful to Asia's tourism

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LOS ANGELES -- The public's exaggerated perception of SARS, more than the actual impact of the virus in otherwise popular destinations such as Hong Kong, has dealt the most damage to Asian tourism.

That was the conclusion reached by about 20 airline, tour operator and hotel representatives gathered here last week for the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) Americas' Division roundtable conference.

In his opening remarks, Jerry Picolla, PATA's North America interim director, said fear of and misinformation about SARS is so extreme that people have been avoiding Chinatowns in San Francisco and New York, and some consumers have stopped buying goods manufactured in China.

Picolla stressed the importance of putting the threat of SARS into perspective.

"As of May 31, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that the number of people who have died from SARS is 764. In the U.S., about 36,000 a year die from the flu; 42,000 thousand people a year in the U.S. are killed by automobile accidents; worldwide, tuberculosis kills 5,000 people daily."

He urged industry members to access information from sources such as the WHO. Quoting from credible sources, Picolla said, would help alleviate pressure for carriers and tour operators that, while believing SARS is not a risk, do not want the liability of saying so.

Some attendees held out hope that as SARS continues to subside as a threat -- and as promotional campaigns kick in to woo back travelers to Asian destinations -- the worst has passed for regional tourism.

"It's been very hard for everyone," said Irene Chen, director of tour development at Pacific Delight Tours. "But if we push now, we will gain in the future. If enough people come, others will follow."

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