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If the H1N1 flu outbreak turns into a full-blown global pandemic, consequences for the travel industry could be devastating, AFP quoted a respected economist as telling a world travel conference in Brazil Friday.
"The effects on the tourism industry would be very, very severe," John Walker, head of the British firm Oxford Economics, said as he presented forecasts his firm had prepared for the World Health Oranisation (WHO).
The worst-case scenario could see the number of travellers dropping by 25 to 30 percent, and the global economy hit with more than $2 trillion in losses, he told the Global Travel and Tourism Summit organised by the World Travel and Tourism Council in the southern Brazilian resort of Florianopolis.
Although he and other top participants at the event all observed that the H1N1 flu outbreak had so far been relatively mild outside of Mexico, they cautioned that its possible return in mutated form in the winter left little cause for comfort.
A pandemic limited to just a few countries would have little overall effect because people would likely just shift their vacation destinations away from affected spots, he said, based on what happened during the 2003 Sars epidemic in China.
But a generalised spread of H1N1 could cause the world economy to lose $2.2 trillion spread over 2009 and 2010, compared with US$25 billion in the case of Sars, Taylor said.
The losses would not only be in the form of reduced or stalled travel, but also from a cut of up to 30 percent in discretionary spending and other flow-on effects from fear of the flu, the economist said.
Taylor and others taking part in a special panel discussing the H1N1 flu outbreak and its consequences for the travel industry took the media to task for a perceived hyping of the dangers of the disease from its outbreak in Mexico.
"I consider there was an overreaction," said Geoffrey Lipman, the assistant secretary general for UN World Tourism.
He and other panelists said they had repeated a message that the current flu outbreak should be countered with frequent handwashing and other basic hygiene measures, and travel should not be curbed.
But they agreed they had little control over the way the media handled the story, or over the reaction of scared governments and the public.
"I don't think people are going to go back to Mexico tomorrow," said Arnie Weissmann, editor of the industry trade magazine Travel Weekly.
Asked by a conference attendee why travel firms did not band together to produce a "sexy" campaign telling passengers travel was still safe despite the flu fears, Jeff Rutledge, chief executive of the AIG Travel Assist insurance company, replied: "It's difficult to make the message of risk sexy."
As the chiefs of the world travel industry grappled with the problem, Mexico the epicentre of the flu crisis said Friday it would be "very close" to bringing its epidemic under control by the end of this month or in June.
So far, 66 people in Mexico and five people in the US have died of the virus, and Canada and Costa Rica have each reported one death. More than 7,500 people in at least 34 countries have been confirmed with H1N1 flu infections, according to the WHO, which said it was likely a "significant" number of others around the world also had the virus.
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