Asia's travel industry, struggling with weak demand because of the weak global economy, is bracing for the fallout from the swine flu.  But industry analysts say Asia's 2003 experience with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome may help the region recover quickly from a travel slump.

Monitoring arriving passengers

Airline industry and port authorities around Asia are monitoring arriving passengers, hoping to detect, and isolate, anyone infected with swine flu, which broke out in Mexico in recent weeks.

In the past several days, the virus has spread to Canada, the United States, New Zealand, Israel and Europe.

It is suspected of causing about 150 deaths in Mexico where more than 1,600 possible cases have been reported. 

Governments around the world are urging their citizens to avoid traveling to areas infected with swine flu, to minimize its spread.  Those warnings are expected to soon translate into fewer international travelers.

Warnings affect international travel, economy

Pacific Asia Travel Association spokesman John Koldowski says there had been hope the region's travel industry would begin to recover from the economic slump late this year.  Now, says Koldowski, the outlook is uncertain.

"It is going to be how quickly this can be handled, how quickly the all clear can be given and how quickly we can get consumer confidence back to a positive track.  If, in the best-case scenario, that may only take two to three months.  In the worst-case scenario it could take six months or longer," he said.

Brian Sinclair-Thompson, the president of the Board of Airline Representatives in Thailand, says transportation authorities are "acting correctly" in trying to reduce the spread of the flu.

SARS scare serves as reference point

Sinclair-Thompson says the travel industry and governments gained experience in dealing with health crises in 2003, when Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome hit the region.

"I think we have learned from the experience of SARS and that we are better equipped to work together to ensure the traveling public of their safety given the checks and balances and the monitoring that have been put in place," he said.

But Sinclair-Thompson adds it is unclear how long it may take the airline industry to recover.  Because of the poor economy around the world, many passengers this year have booked flights closer to their departure date.  That makes it hard to get a good sense of trends.

Air travel diminishes

The International Air Transport Association this week said passenger traffic fell 11 percent in March because of the economy.  The Asia Pacific region led the decline with a more than 14 percent fall off in demand.  Passengers for North American flights fell by more than 13 percent.

IATA had earlier forecast global passenger traffic to contract by two percent this year, with a recovery in 2010.  But now such forecasts may have to be redone.

In 2008, airlines suffered a loss of nearly $8.5 billion.  IATA had expected the loss to shrink this year to around $5 billion.