If avian flu actually mutates into a
global human pandemic, travel and tourism will certainly be among
the first industries to feel its ravages. But is anyone prepared?
While avian flu
is responsible for the deaths of 200 million birds, it has so far
killed just over 100 people worldwide. Yet health experts warn that
it could mutate into a human-to-human contagion -- and should that
happen, travel is certain to be a primary vector for the spread of
the disease, resulting in what is likely to be a devastating
But as awareness
of the risks grow, so do concerns about whether travel-related
companies are moving quickly enough to prepare to deal with a
United Nations agencies, health organizations and major
corporations worldwide are hurrying to develop contingency plans,
along with a network of reliable information and services to deal
with a fast-spreading and deadly disease.
administration earlier this month released a comprehensive 300-page
plan for responding, should the avian flu virus mutate into a major
human threat. It has earmarked more than $7 billion to help finance
emergency services and planning for potential responses, which
range from travel restrictions to ways to maintain essential
services and prevent the collapse of the U.S. economy.
For the moment,
however, the competitive traditions of free-market economies appear
to be working against the collaborative initiatives that health
authorities insist will be necessary if social, cultural, economic
and governmental institutions are to survive: Despite reports of
widespread efforts within the travel and tourism sectors to devise
plans of action, individual companies remain resolutely mum about
most details of their business continuity plans.
We have a plan
that were working on, said Sam Macalus, communications director for
Carlson Cos. in Minneapolis. It basically deals with potential
impact on guests, employees and business operations, and we have
formed teams to make provisions for guest safety, business
continuity and a variety of things from risk management to security
But we are not
able to discuss specifics, he said. We know that a lot of companies
are not getting into any detail right now.
multibillion-dollar global business interests span hotel, cruise
and travel management, is among a long list of companies that
declined to talk about their preparations for a flu pandemic. And
while travel industry associations representing cruise lines,
airlines, travel insurance providers and tour operators say their
members are beginning to reach out for information and are trying
to coordinate such activities, the actual extent of preparation
remains murky at best.
The magic word
here is preparedness, said Geoffrey Lipman, special adviser on
avian flu to the secretary general of the U.N.-affiliated World
At this moment
there is no avian flu problem for tourism. And that itself may be
one of the reasons why people are scared to talk about
Lipman said last
week in a telephone interview from London that recent steps to
bring travel-related organizations face-to-face with leaders of the
World Health Organization have helped spur development of a central
portal that companies can use to gather reliable
general took eight tourism organizations from the WTO to meet with
WHO leaders in Geneva, who told them that we want to know the full
implications of this and we need to get prepared, and that we need
an understanding of where you are going, Lipman said. The response
was very good. The reaction from WHO was very positive.
welcomed the early opportunity for the meeting, Lipman said,
because if the avian virus does move to the next phase, we will not
have time to deal with tourism entities. We will be too busy. If
WTO can be a node that the tourism sector can plug into, that will
help. The tourism sector in a crisis situation would not have
The WTO has since
developed the Travel Emergency Response Network (TERN), a
clearinghouse for information on international pandemic planning
for tourism-related enterprises. TERN includes the International
Hotel & Restaurant Association, the Pacific Asia Travel
Association, the International Federation of Tour Operators, the
United Federation of Travel Agents Associations, the Airports
Council International and the International Air Transport
Association. The National Tour Association announced two weeks ago
that it was joining the network and was encouraging others to do
president of the NTA, said it was a logical reaction to the
What we have
learned with disasters and problem situations in the past is how
critical communication and information is, Phillips said. Whether
it is what I believe to have been an overreaction by media and
consumers to SARS, or what happens when there is a complete
communications breakdown like Katrina, communication is absolutely
essential. So when we heard about creation of this network, and
realizing that a pandemic is global, it is just common sense that
we would want to get ourselves integrated into this network to keep
our members informed.
Lipman said the
WTO still had significant work to do on the communications and
information systems it is attempting to put in place, a process
that could take as long as a year. In the interim, he remains
hopeful that no outbreaks will occur before those systems are ready
-- and before businesses have added avian flu to their
risk-management and disaster-preparedness plans.
The World Health
Organization has a chart that has six levels of alert, and we are
at level 3, Lipman said. That is basically a preparedness level. At
this moment, there is no mutated form of the virus. At level four,
you would see some form of mutation at a local level. At level five
you would see clusters, and at level six, a pandemic. As soon as
you move from level three to level four, the rules of the game
magnitude of the problem helps to explain much of the corporate
reluctance to talk about what happens next, Lipman noted. And most
experts agree that the experience with widespread flu outbreaks in
1918 and the 1960s and from SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory
Syndrome) in 2003, has raised alarms over what could happen with
have warned that while avian flu in humans has so far resulted only
from direct contact with infected birds or from contact with bodily
fluids of humans who are ill, the virus could mutate at any time.
The World Health Organization and others, including the Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention in the U.S., are collaborating on
detailed global surveillance to detect any indications that the
virus has mutated to a form that could be passed among humans
through indirect contact.
At the leading
edge of all of this monitoring is an early warning system that
could trigger appropriate responses to an escalation of human
Steven Parente, a
health policy researcher at the University of Minnesota, where the
Carlson School of Management recently held a seminar for companies
tracking the potential for avian flu outbreaks, said Rx Hub, a
private, real-time database used by pharmaceutical companies to
track the use and supply of prescription drugs, could be pressed
into service as an early warning system by government entities like
the CDC. As viral medication use rises, the database might help
pinpoint outbreaks, he said. The CDC declined to comment on that
use of Rx Hub.
But most experts
agree that the speed with which notification of a human-to-human
outbreak occurs could mitigate damage through containment
anywhere in the world would likely result in travel restrictions.
But government reports and private-sector experts conceded that
even border closings and efforts to quarantine an outbreak might
slow a pandemics progress by only a matter of weeks.
There are three
pillars to all of this: preparedness, surveillance and
response-containment, said Phillips. Unfortunately, we dont yet
know what all of the containment strategies are. But it seems that
the best hope to minimize the economic impact on travel and
tourism, if and when this happens, is to contain it and contain it
as quickly and emphatically as possible.
But that amounts
to a fairly desperate definition of best hope, because
unfortunately, Phillips allowed, the prevailing strategy of
containment is likely the worst possible scenario for the travel
tourism officials have repeatedly stressed that, to date, there are
no travel restrictions related to avian flu anywhere in the world.
But if a pandemic emerges, health officials say, about 92 million
people in the U.S. alone could end up infected, possibly resulting
in close to 2 million deaths. In such a situation, public
transportation, conventions, sporting events and a wide range of
other social, cultural, economic and governmental interactions
would clearly be affected.
This could make
the impact from 9/11 look like a walk in the park, said Ken Wilson,
a Minnesota consultant who has created a special unit to advise
businesses on preparations for a possible flu pandemic. It could
have the impact of 500 Katrinas.
troubling is the possibility that up to half of the U.S. workforce
could stay home, either because they are ill or because they are
attempting to avoid infection. Local, regional and federal agencies
are predicting that health care workers would be overwhelmed, that
hospital emergency rooms would not be able to cope and that medical
supplies would quickly be exhausted.
Carlson Cos. CEO
Marilyn Carlson Nelson told participants at the World Travel and
Tourism Councils recent Global Summit in Washington that hotels
could be pressed into service as triage centers in the event of
human-to-human avian flu outbreaks. And business experts say the
implications of a crippling flu for delivery of goods and services
-- including medical care -- could bring most of the U.S. economy
to a halt.
At the same time,
travel-related businesses worry that media attention to the
potential dangers of a pandemic could itself produce a downturn in
travel, even if no crisis ever developed.
With the release
earlier this month of the Bush administrations contingency plans
for dealing with a human outbreak of bird flu, awareness of the
potential for widespread economic and civil disruptions is growing
rapidly. But serious questions remain over approaches to
At best, the
protections available are limited. Wilsons consultants advise
companies to do things like train employees to avoid or correct
situations where a virus could easily be passed, for example, by
cleaning telephones with antiseptic wipes, not shaking hands,
avoiding crowded venues and working from home by
companies acknowledge that they are just now formulating
contingency plans for how to deal with a virulent pandemic. In
part, this is because of deep-seated concerns within the industry
that any attention to the issue might prompt people to avoid
travel, unnecessarily damaging the travel industry.
companies executives are keeping pandemic contingency plans to
themselves, one notable exception is Kristen Reeves, business
travel manager for Gentronics of Washington, D.C., a large
technology company that at any given time has between 100 and 150
employees on the road.
Gentronics security director, Paul McCauley, said they began
planning two months ago after customers began to ask questions
about what the company would do in the event of a human avian flu
We are really
preparing for the worst-case scenario, Reeves said. The potential
of 50% of the workforce being out at one time, in rolling waves of
three to four weeks for a period of 18 months, is
The company is
considering both customers and employees in its contingency
planning and is trying to develop work-from-home plans that could
be put in place if call centers, which the company uses frequently,
are shut down. Travel is a major focus of the planning.
It is likely that
the first human case may not be in the U.S., Reeves said. So we
have to make decisions if we will allow travel to certain
countries, and we have customers all around the world. We are in
the early stages of planning, but how we will manage our travel
program is a major part of this. Restricting travel will probably
be the first step if an outbreak occurs.
relationships with travel providers are still awaiting
clarification. She has yet to learn how airlines might handle
challenges arising from a pandemic, she added.
I have posed
questions about airline relationships, and people I have talked to
from the airlines say they are not aware what the plans are at this
point, she said. I have to believe that air carriers are addressing
this somewhere, but we know they are focused on fuel prices and
bankruptcy woes. But this is something that could take them all
She said the
companys travel department will be working with preferred vendors
such as hotels and car rental firms. We need to know what they are
doing, how well are cars being cleaned, what steps they are taking.
We need to know what their plans are. But we are not at that level
of detail yet.
charged with creating a plan sat through two months of weekly
meetings, but there is still significant work to be done, she said.
Just when you think you have thought of all the things you might
need to address, a few more come up, Reeves said. This is an
evolutionary thing. I doubt we will be finished planning until all
this is behind us.
that even after all the planning on paper was completed, Gentronics
would conduct table-top exercises to make sure the plans will work.
He said such tests were likely to be a part of any companys
planning if they are serious about mitigating economic
airline and cruise companies either did not respond to Travel
Weeklys requests for comment or declined to answer
Lines At Full Speed
suggested that cruise lines were furthest along at developing
contingency planning for an avian flu outbreak.
vice president of the International Council of Cruise Lines, said
ICCL members were working independently and in a coordinated
fashion to develop their contingency plans. She said cruise
companies that dock in U.S. ports benefit because health issues are
already closely monitored and regulated by the Centers for Disease
Control. That oversight has produced relationships that are helpful
in planning for, or preventing, shipboard outbreaks.
When SARS was a
threat, ICCL members adopted guidelines to prevent SARS from being
introduced onto ships, she said. And in the unlikely event that
that would happen, there were protocols developed. Some of the
procedures for avian flu are similar to SARS, like advanced
notifications and crew screening prior to boarding.
Plott said cruise
lines were working to develop alert responses that correspond to
the flu risk alerts now being used by the WHO and the CDC, and to
determine what level of response was appropriate for
But she also
acknowledged that a full-blown, global pandemic -- whether avian
flu or some future virus -- would likely be beyond mitigation by
something like that would simply change the way we live, she
president of the U.S. Travel Insurance Association, said his
organization sponsored a seminar on catastrophe response, including
avian flu and the potential pandemic, last February in Florida.
From that meeting, USTIA established a committee that is developing
recommendations for its members.
Its mission and
charter will be developed in the next 60 days, Ansell said. They
will be breaking into work groups for individual scenarios. Were
looking into situational awareness and coordination of efforts at a
number of levels using government sources, the CDC, WHO and WTO as
have their own continuity plans and will be working with partners
and suppliers, he said. The larger question is: How do we integrate
those plans with what is happening in tourism and government
Such planning is
a part of risk management that takes catastrophe planning into
account at several levels, he said. While much of the planning in
the past has been focused on facilities management, emergency
response to natural disasters and the like, the portent of a flu
outbreak brings another layer of preparedness.
The world seems a
little less safe, not only with concerns about pandemic flu but
terrorism, natural disasters and impact on suppliers going
bankrupt, Ansell said. With all those kinds of potential
catastrophes, especially since 2001, the travel insurance industry
has been focused on trying to provide services that are responsive
to these and find ways to take care of customers when we need to. I
think that is largely true of the travel industry in general. So Im
sure that we are now better equipped than we were five years ago,
and we will be better equipped to deal with avian flu.
Wilson, the avian
flu consultant, said he believed businesses needed to do more
contingency planning than they are doing now and consider fully the
ramifications of a potential spread of avian flu to humans. Major
companies outside the travel industry are being aggressive about
preparations, he said, but he added that many smaller companies --
often essential suppliers to larger enterprises -- may not be
taking the threat as seriously as they need to.
look at what it takes to keep their business running, to keep
essential services going, he said. They need to be able to say,
Here is a set of services we can close for a month; here are some
we can close for three months and it wont cripple us. And on the
other side, you need to plan for recovery once things are over, to
bring business back online.
But he said many
business owners do not believe, despite warnings, that anything
will happen. On the other hand, he said, chilling warnings were
coming from organizations outside the travel industry.
If you want to
hear some scary numbers, you should talk to the funeral directors
associations, Wilson said. Here in Minnesota, they are talking
about using hockey rinks to store the dead.
reporter Dan Luzadder, send e-mail to [email protected].