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Canadian Officials Sharply Critical of WHO Travel Warning - 2003-04-26

Canadian officials are blasting the bulletin by the World Health Organization warning against travel to Toronto. In a surprise move, the WHO has cautioned against travel to Toronto because of the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, which has killed at least 18 people in Canada so far. Toronto municipal officials are worried about the economic impact on the city's convention and tourism industry.

Canadian federal and municipal officials are scrambling to contain the economic damage to Toronto brought on by the WHO travel advisory.

Toronto deputy mayor Case Ootes told VOA there is deep anger at the WHO for issuing the travel warning. "We're very upset at their advisory and feel that it was totally misguided, based on assumptions that are not factual," he said. "And, as you can imagine, it's had a terrific negative impact upon our tourist industry, with bookings for conventions being canceled, hotels being canceled, and so on."

The publicity brought on by SARS in Toronto has already crippled the city's tourism and convention business. Mr. Ootes said the WHO warning is making it worse. At least four major conventions have already been canceled, and hotel bookings are down 20 to 30 per cent. Business in restaurants and shops is down as much as 70 per cent in some areas.

Toronto is the biggest epicenter of SARS outside Asia. But Canadian officials say that the incidence of SARS in Toronto is far lower than in China, and that it is under control. They insist the WHO warning is unwarranted.

Deputy Mayor Ootes said the Canadian government did not realize the impact the WHO would have. "What we missed in this whole approach is the World Health Organization and the power that they have. And our federal government should have been on top of whatever they were doing while they were reaching their decision," he said. "And that didn't happen. I mean there was no initiative by the World Health Organization to try to identify the problem as it existed locally. And, you know, we're lumped in with Beijing."

But Mr. Ootes said local residents are certainly not concerned about SARS, so neither should visitors. "People [are] going about their normal business. You'd be hard pressed to find anyone wearing a mask. People are going to [base]ball games. We had a hockey game a couple of nights ago, it was packed with fans," he said. "People are going to restaurants. And you would never know there was a SARS problem in Toronto."

The Canadian government plans a $17 million marketing campaign to reassure the world that Toronto remains a safe destination.