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Deadly Pneumonia Hurts Tourism in Hong Kong - 2003-03-26

An outbreak of deadly pneumonia in Hong Kong is cutting into the city's already battered tourism industry. Fear of the disease, which has infected more than 1,100 people worldwide, and killed at least 50, is prompting travelers to avoid Hong Kong.

"I am very afraid of this disease," said a woman on the street. "We all, the whole family [are] very afraid."

This Hong Kong resident wears a face mask and is avoiding public transportation, for fear of catching Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, known as SARS. Its victims suffer severe flu-like symptoms that can lead to a potentially deadly form of pneumonia.

SARS first hit Hong Kong three weeks ago and spread quickly. Of the total cases found around the world, more than half have been in Hong Kong and southern China. The World Health Organization, in an effort to stem the spread of the disease, has warned travelers in Asia to beware of SARS.

The SARS outbreak comes at a time when tourism is faltering worldwide, because of the Iraq war and terrorist threats. The double blow of war and disease has caused thousands of travelers to cancel trips to Hong Kong in recent days.

Nigel Summers is a tourism consultant with Horwarth Asia Pacific. He says most of the cancellations are likely to be made by tourists.

"Leisure travelers are notorious for being scared off by health scares," Nigel Summers said. "We have seen it happen in other parts of the region with dramatic effects in Bali where they have had cholera scares, dengue fever outbreaks. Markets like Japan are highly sensitive…maybe even more than a 50 percent fall off there. At the other end of the spectrum markets like China…they are continuing to come."

The SARS outbreak has scared away hundreds of rugby fans from around the world, who normally would be flocking to Hong Kong for this weekend's Rugby Sevens tournament. Even some teams have canceled appearances. The annual tournament is the city's largest sporting event and draws thousands of tourists.

Joseph Tung is the executive director of the Travel Industry Council of Hong Kong. He says hotels normally are full during the rugby tournament.

"I think cancellations are about 10 to 20 percent," he said. "Usually, we see hotels booked 95 percent, but I think the bookings are around 80 to 90."

Mr. Summers, the tourism consultant, says those estimates might be conservative. He calculates that hotel occupancy rates could be as low as 50 or 60 percent.

Hong Kong has struggled to climb out of a recession for months, and the SARS outbreak will not help. The city is a business and travel hub for Asia and China and it normally draws in more than 10 million visitors a year. The travel industry accounts for nearly six percent of Hong Kong's economy.

For many Hong Kong bars and restaurants, the three-day Rugby Sevens tournament is a highly profitable time, as tourists and local fans crowd in to celebrate. But the party this year is likely to be more subdued.

Susan Bhattachan is the manager of The Wanch, an English-style pub in Hong Kong. She says the Rugby Sevens weekend is usually her busiest time of year. This year, she expects business will be slower.

"I need to order lots of stock, I feel it is going to be busy," Ms. Bhattachan said. "But comparing to last year, I ordered quite little, I think it is 10 percent less."

A record number of tourists was one of the only bright spots in Hong Kong's struggling economy last year. Mr. Summer predicts that tourist arrivals will bounce back to last year's levels in about three months, but only if the number of SARS cases begins to fall by the end of March.