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Asian Businesses Count SARS Costs - 2003-04-21

Businesses around Asia continue to count the costs of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. Airlines are asking for cuts in landing fees, and Asia's leading cruise line operator has moved ships to Australia to avoid the virus.

Airlines are particularly suffering because of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. Passenger numbers continue to fall, as travelers around the world avoid the areas hardest hit by the virus - Hong Kong, mainland China and Singapore.

In Hong Kong, more than 30 percent of all flights into and out of the city each day have been canceled because of the SARS outbreak.

Several airlines, led by Hong Kong's dominant carrier, Cathay Pacific Airways, recently asked for a reduction in landing fees at the city's international airport. So far, the airport's managers have not agreed to a cut.

SARS is a contagious virus that causes severe, flu-like symptoms and a potentially lethal form of atypical pneumonia. About four thousand people have contracted SARS worldwide, and nearly 190 have died of it since the disease first appeared in China late last year.

Star Cruises, a Malaysian company that operates cruise ships throughout Asia, has moved two of its ships to Australia to escape SARS. The Superstar Leo will leave Hong Kong and head to Sydney, while Superstar Virgo will berth in Freemantle, in Western Australia, instead of Singapore. Australia has not reported any cases of SARS yet.

Australian authorities welcomed the move as a boost to the country's slumping tourism industry. The ships carry about two thousand passengers each and employ several hundred people.

Hong Kong's government says SARS will send unemployment sharply higher. With few tourists in town, and local residents staying at home to avoid the disease, hotels, restaurants and retailers are seeing sales plunge. The government expects companies to start laying off workers soon.

Speaking through a translator, Hong Kong's leader, Tung Chee-hwa was blunt about the damage the disease has done. "Atypical pneumonia has brought disaster to Hong Kong, in terms of our economy, in terms of our health. No matter which way you look at it, this is a disaster," he said.

Hong Kong reported that unemployment for the three months that ended in March rose slightly to 7.5 percent. For the three months that ended in February, the rate was 7.4 percent. SARS began to spread in the city in March, and by the end of the month, many companies already were feeling the pinch.