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Despite SARS, Thailand Still Attracts Backpackers - 2003-04-24

Tourism in Southeast Asia is reeling from the effects of the virus that causes Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. But relatively untouched Thailand is still attracting intrepid backpackers.

They come in all sizes, shapes, and colors, and from nearly all corners of the world. The one thing these young and not-so-young travelers have in common is their refusal to stop traveling just because of a virus. As infections from Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, rise daily, hotel and travel agents throughout Asia are flooded with cancellations.

But the backpackers travel on, saying they have little chance of catching the flu-like virus in Thailand. Adam, a backpacker in his 20s, talks to VOA from the traditional backpacker's haven of Bangkok's Khao San Road. "I first heard about it in the south of China just before I went to Hanoi and Hanoi was a hotspot then, so it was a worry, but it hasn't really stopped me. I'm still going anyway. Plans haven't changed at all," he said. Unlike Adam, Amy and Chris Barret from Brisbane, Australia, say they are worried about SARS because they are traveling with their four-year-old daughter, Sinay. "We started traveling about three weeks ago," she said. "We thought about it but we were at the time going to Brunei, Malaysia, and Thailand and when we left, none of those countries had any reported cases and Australia did, so we thought well..." Amy's husband Chris has other concerns. "I'm more concerned about malaria and tetanus than SARS," said Mr. Barret. "It only kills about four percent of the people that get it anyway." Both Amy and Chris say they feel Thailand is safe, while their daughter says she is just having fun. "Well, I meet lots of nice friends, I do," she said. MiMi, from the Khao San Road pharmacy, says pharmacies along the street are doing brisk business selling face masks. No travelers on the famous street could be seen wearing them, although recent Thai legislation requires travelers from infected areas to wear face masks for 10 days after arrival. "I sell a lot because many people aware about SARS and well, normally, people come here to ask me about the SARS," she said. "For myself, my responsibility, I recommend not only protect by the mask, but also themselves should be healthy from inside such as they should take Vitamin C." One travel agent named Joy says the backpacker business along Khao San Road has not slowed down, but the same could not be said of the business traveler. Jittery upscale travelers are canceling up to 90 percent of reservations in five star hotels. "I think lots of backpackers still here, but for the business people, I think they don't come to this area anymore, or many they don't come to Thailand, they just move to another country," said Joy. Tourist shop owner on Khoa San Road Phishat says business is booming. "Now everything is coming better you know, because everybody is coming to Bangkok," he said.

Not everyone agrees with Phisat. Some hotel and restaurant owners along the street say business is down and blame it on a combination of the SARS virus and the war in Iraq. Others, like travel agent Bong Kong, say their businesses are suffering as many backpackers cancel reservations to other Asian destinations harder hit by SARS. "This year the business lower than last year because many problems this year," said Bong Kong. "For example, very, very problem for us about SARS because a lot of people come to refund the ticket to Singapore, to Hong Kong, to Vietnam to China." American backpacker Casey, who is traveling with her husband Dave, says SARS has completely upended their plans. "We had planned on going to southeast Asia, but changed our plans," she said. "We are now going to India instead, with a quick stop here, but we do have our supply of masks." Thailand for years has been trying to steer away from its reputation as a backpacker's paradise. But with the drop in business and upscale tourism, Thailand may well need the backpackers.

According to the Tourism Authority of Thailand, of the 10 million visitors to the country last year, about one third were in the 18 to 30 year age bracket and spent a total of 30 million baht. This is money the country will need if it is to weather the crisis SARS has created for the tourism industry in Asia.