Tourism and the spread of disease


Twelve years ago, I was flying to Shanghai with my mother and sister. We were in economy class, but each of us had a whole row of seats to sleep on for the long-distance flight. Immigration and baggage collection was similarly convenient and smooth. Except for an additional fever screening perhaps — it was the height of the SARS epidemic, which was spreading from China around the region and would come to infect over 8,000 people.

With shorter queues and lower prices, it was arguably a great time to travel to China. And, for the Travel & Tourism sector, it was vital that people continued doing so. When health epidemics scare people off travelling, the impact is felt immediately by airlines, hotels, tour operators, and all the other businesses that depend on travellers’ money.

At the same time, it’s clear that all the global travel that is such an integral part of our economic and social reality today is also one of the main risk factors in the spread of viruses and diseases around the world. Along with the growth in aviation, the world is getting more and more connected. A study by a team from MIT found that the links between regions created by the global aviation network increased by 140% between 1990 and 2012.

Over 3.3 billion people took a flight in 2014, and with just a connection or two each one of these could get to pretty much anywhere in the world to anywhere else. Adding the fact that air passengers travel in close proximity in the sealed environment of a plane, it is easy to see why aviation is seen as a major risk factor in the spread of a global epidemic.

Leaving melodramatic Hollywood representations such as 2011’s Contagion aside, real examples have shown that it doesn’t take many people to spread an epidemic around the world. The global SARS outbreak in 2003 was catalysed by just ten international visitors who were staying at the same hotel as a SARS-ill Chinese physician. These ten guests travelled on to destinations throughout the world before knowing they were carrying the virus with them and igniting chains of transmissions around the world.

So how can modern travellers strike the right balance in not unnecessarily increasing the danger of epidemics while at the same time avoiding drastic disruptions to Travel & Tourism, to say nothing of their own businesses and lives?

Of course, there are certain basics that should be quite obvious. Travelling to the direct site of an acute outbreak is never good practice, without a good reason to do so. And in all cases, travellers should always clearly follow health authorities’ instructions and restrictions, even if they may pose an inconvenience or disruption to original plans. Spending a week or two in quarantine may not be fun, but there are certain sacrifices we need to make in the interest of global health (if not just even for your own safety). More fundamentally, basic personal care practices — hand washing, limiting contact with visibly ill people, awareness of any potential symptoms — are best pursued with special vigilance when travelling.

Adherence to official guidance, general hygiene, and (what should be) common sense aside, the existence of a health concern is not always an automatic reason to abandon travel. In most cases, the true risk is nowhere close to how it is perceived.

Sometimes, the biggest impact from a health epidemic comes from completely misguided responses to a situation. A poignant example comes from travellers who cancelled their trips to South Africa at the time of the Ebola outbreak in East Africa. This despite the fact that Cape Town is farther away from Sierra Leone than London is and not much closer than New York.

In places where tourists do not pose an added risk to the spread of a disease, and in which they are not in danger of catching it themselves, a reduction in tourism flows and the corresponding loss of revenue only adds further damage to destinations already burdened by the health situation.

A recent demonstration of the dramatic impact a health situation can have on tourism is the case of South Korea following the MERS outbreak. Within just two weeks of the first case of the virus in the country, over 20,000 foreign travellers cancelled their planned trips. And according to travel intelligence company ForwardKeys, net bookings for trips to South Korea decreased by over 99% in the month following the first case of MERS in the country. A sudden, and unpredictable drop, in tourist arrivals such as this can have debilitating impact on the Travel & Tourism sector and beyond, especially in a country like South Korea, where tourism has been playing an important role in a struggling economy.

An absence of tourist visitors impacts the entire system of the far-reaching tourism sector. No guests means no income for the hotels, restaurants, destinations, shops, and everyone else who caters to them. And since epidemics usually hit quite rapidly and unexpectedly, tourism businesses do not have a chance to adapt to a changing number of tourists. As a result, airlines may have to fly almost empty planes, hotel employees have no guests to serve, and an entire tourism season can quickly be derailed.

Again, there are certainly situations when this loss is a necessary and unavoidable cost to address more pressing health risks. But in others, as much normality as possible — in tourism as well as other areas — is often the best prescription to limit the negative impact of an epidemic.

Ultimately, each person has to make the decision they are comfortable with in the end. And perhaps that judgment is somewhat different for a family travelling with young children from what it is for a businesswoman with an important contract to sign.

But, in any case, just because the media has mentioned a disease outbreak isn’t necessarily a reason to cancel your trip. And, in fact, you might even get to enjoy a bit more legroom instead!


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