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SARS, Terrorism Hurt Tourism Industry in Asia - 2003-08-09

Tourism ministers from across Asia are meeting in Beijing to find ways to recapture travel business lost during the recent SARS outbreak. But last week's bombing in Jakarta unexpectedly changed the meeting's focus to another issue affecting tourism, terrorism.

The region's tourism ministers came to Beijing to discuss the devastating impact of SARS, which cost Asia's tourist industry billions of dollars. Instead, at a press briefing Saturday, they found themselves speaking out against terrorism.

Ministers from Southeast Asia joined their counterparts from China, Korea and Japan in condemning the terrorist bombing in Jakarta that killed 10 and wounded scores of people earlier this week.

At the same time, they asked governments not to issue blanket advisories against travel to Asia in response to a single terrorist attack in one country.

Lim Neo Chian, chief executive of the Singapore Tourism Board, said a halt to tourism in the region would amount to a victory for the terrorists.

"Terrorists are seeking to disrupt our activities, and we will have met their goals if, because of a terrorist activity, we decide to change what we want to do, we decide to pull back the things we want to do," he said. "And if we do that, I think we will end up meeting their objectives."

China's delegates, while joining in the group's sentiments, were eager to discuss the revitalization of their tourist industry in the wake of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. Although the declaration pointed out that SARS is no longer a public health threat, tourism has yet to return to normal levels.

He Guangwei, chairman of the China National Tourism Administration, predicted that it would be a while before foreign tourists returned to China in large numbers.

Mr. He admits that inbound tourism will take time to recover in China. He says, despite the victory over SARS, it will take at least two months for foreign tour operators to get back into the market.

Mr. He also said SARS had cost China's domestic travel industry about $20 million this year, as Chinese locked their doors during the outbreak and stayed home. This will be the first time in seven years that China will register negative growth in domestic tourism.

Chinese tourism officials are at least relieved that a general meeting of the World Tourism Organization will take place in China next October as planned, despite earlier calls for the meeting to be moved to another country.