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Millions of Chinese Vacation on Labor Day Despite Small SARS Outbreak - 2004-05-01

A small outbreak of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome in China is not stopping tens of millions of people from going on vacation on this International Labor Day.

Health workers are on hand at one of Beijing's main railway station, watching as passengers walk through thermal scanners that check them for fever, one of the most obvious symptoms of SARS.

A handful of Chinese have been diagnosed over the last week with the potentially fatal disease, and several others are suspected of having it.

Some passengers interviewed while waiting in long lines say they are concerned about the outbreak, but not enough to stay home. Many of the trains leaving Beijing Saturday were sold out.

Chinese tourism officials say they expect 90 million people to travel over the week-long holiday.

May 1, or Labor Day, is traditionally a day devoted to paying tribute to workers, collectively seen as one of the pillars of this and other Communist societies.

However, for many people in this age of China's burgeoning free-market economy, the holiday has now simply become a time to sightsee and spend. The holiday is one of China's three "Golden Weeks" for tourism, when the government encourages people to travel and pour money into the growing domestic tourism industry.

Those who stand to benefit are shop owners like 26-year-old Zhou Yulan, who earns a living selling soft drinks, fruit, and snacks at her stand near the train station. She says May 1 is when she makes her money.

She says she will not take any time off from work this Labor Day holiday. She said her hometown is too far away and there is no real reason to go visit when she has so much work to do here.

This May 1 appears to be better for the travel business across Asia than last year, when fear over the first, widespread outbreak of SARS prompted thousands of people to cancel their travel plans. This time, travel agents say flights going to such popular destinations as Phuket in Thailand and Bali in Indonesia are at near capacity.

The May Day holiday turned tragic in Vietnam, where a boat carrying up to 200 people sank off the country's southern Ca Mau province. Reports from the scene say more than 20 people are confirmed dead and scores are missing, most of them children. The boat was carrying students and tourists on a holiday outing.

The workers whom the holiday traditionally honored have not been completely forgotten. There was a rare gathering of South Korean and North Korean workers in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, on Saturday. South Korea's Yonhap News Agency says about 300 representatives of South Korea's two main labor organizations flew to Pyongyang for ceremonies that are scheduled to last through Monday.