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Weighing the risks amid the SARS crisis

By Dawn Matus (International Herald Tribune)
Friday, April 4, 2003

TOKYO: A few days ago, Chris Guiness, a British executive living in Hong Kong, was getting ready for a business trip to Japan and China. But as the news about severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, grew more alarming, Guiness decided it would be wiser to cancel.

Hong Kong is one of the areas hardest hit by SARS, a life-threatening respiratory illness that is believed to have started in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong late last year and has so far killed nearly 80 people and infected more than 2,300 others worldwide. Hong Kong reports that about 700 people have been infected and that at least 16 people have died.

But to Guiness, staying put in Hong Kong seemed safer than flying around Asia, because it is air travelers who have carried the disease across borders.

“I feel that planes are one of the most likely places to catch this thing because you’re traveling in an enclosed environment for a period of time, and you just don’t know who you’re going to be sitting next to,” said Guiness, managing director in Asia for CSS Stellar, the London-based sports and entertainment company.

As SARS continues its mysterious march around the globe, claiming more lives and pitting medical experts in a race against time to contain it, Guiness’s concerns are easy to understand – particularly for anyone going to Hong Kong, Singapore, China or Vietnam, where most SARS infections and deaths have been concentrated.

For many travelers in Asia now, it is the risk of contracting SARS – rather than the possibility of terrorism linked to the Iraq war – that is the major source of worry. Increasingly, the response is to postpone trips or scrap them altogether. Yet even as some people flee, scores of others continue to travel in the region for personal or business reasons.

Whether one is leaning toward canceling a trip because of SARS or forging ahead, there are numerous issues to consider. Indeed, travel industry experts and travelers say that, until there is an effective treatment for the disease, it is imperative to be extra vigilant about travel-related matters.

That includes taking some obvious steps, like staying abreast of news via newspapers, television and the Internet. People should also watch out for updates to public health bulletins and travel advisories. One good source is www.who.int/en, the World Health Organization’s Website.

To minimize the risks of infection, health experts urge people to take precautions in basic personal hygiene, such as keeping the hands clean. Hygiene standards differ depending on where you go, which can be a source of worry.

In addition to health concerns, there are financial issues to consider. To avoid unexpected fees and other hassles, travel specialists recommend keeping an eye on airline and hotel policies on reservation changes and also urge people to examine their insurance plans.

There is a lot to keep track of, and the job is made trickier by the fact that understanding of SARS is still evolving. As a result, policies regarding the disease are still very much in flux, and travelers must be prepared for changes. Meanwhile, measures pertaining to the disease can vary by country as well as by company, making it important to pay close attention to particulars.

Take, for example, airlines’ policies on rescheduling or canceling tickets. While many major carriers have announced relaxed policies because of the conflict in Iraq, a number have yet to take similar moves with regard to SARS, said Peter de Maria, general manager of Travel Spirit Group, an Australian travel company.

Those that are already permitting passengers to reschedule flights under certain conditions include Northwest Airlines, United Airlines, Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific Airways and Dragonair. Singapore Air will consider refunds for cancellations in some cases, said Mika Yoshimoto, a spokeswoman in Tokyo.

On a related issue, now that airlines are screening customers for SARS symptoms at airports, it makes sense to find out what happens if a carrier determines that a person is not fit to travel. Cathay Pacific says it allows such passengers to change their flight without any penalties, and permits them to board once they get written clearance from a doctor.

Similarly, it is worth asking hotels what they are doing for guests concerned about the SARS outbreak. The Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong and the Sheraton Towers Singapore both say they are taking a flexible stance on postponing reservations. Jane Li, a spokeswoman for the Mandarin Oriental, said the hotel would consider inquiries about its cancellation fees on a case-by-case basis.

With questions still swirling about how SARS is transmitted, the Sheraton Towers has tightened hygiene procedures. Among other things, employees ranging from cleaning and kitchen workers to those at the reception desk must wear gloves and masks, said a spokeswoman, Lee Kit Pui.

Generally speaking, fears about SARS have triggered a heightened awareness of cleanliness and spreading germs, but travelers say that is not true everywhere. “I went to one restaurant where everyone was wearing a mask, then I went to another on Sunday where no one was wearing a mask,” John Bosworth, president of Ikon Travel in Tokyo, said of a recent stay in Hong Kong. “I felt much more confident at the one where everyone was wearing a mask, even though it looked a little strange.”

For Aaron Medina, president in Japan for the Hertz car rental agency, there was little such comfort while dining in Shanghai last week. “Every one of the meals I had was in the typical Chinese fashion,” he said, “with common dishes being dipped into by everybody’s chopsticks. I kept thinking I was in some kind of Russian roulette game.”

Travelers worried about contracting SARS on the road may want to check their insurance. Steve Dasseos, who owns the online travel insurance company TripInsuranceStore.com, advises people to find out whether the illness would be covered under the medical portion of their policy, and also to familiarize themselves with the exclusions, which can be numerous.

“To avoid any unpleasant surprises, people should definitely find out exactly what coverage the company they are considering will have for SARS,” Dasseos said.

With more infections and deaths due to SARS being reported each day, the number of travelers to affected areas in Asia is sliding. But for people who do travel in the region now, there is an upside: bargain prices. Travel agencies are offering discounts to lure buyers, and even as airlines cut flights in response to falling demand, some are also advertising special fares.

Dawn Matus is a journalist in Tokyo.

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