Bird Flu Outbreak in Thailand Renews Fears Among Tour Operators

Tourism representatives in Thailand have expressed concern after last week's first reported bird flu death in the country in seven months. Tourism is critical to the Thai economy and the industry is urging the government to control the latest bird flu outbreak.

The Thai tourism industry is urging the government to take action to wipe out bird flu before October, the start of the peak tourist season.

The tourism sector has just rebounded from the major setbacks of the 2004 tsunami and the 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.

With peak season approaching, Chattan Kunjara Na Ayudhya of the Thai Tourism authority says officials are expecting strong numbers.

"It looks good - from reports I have obtained from the major tourist destinations: Chiang Mai, Ayutthaya, Phuket, all looking good. And I think hoteliers are happy with the bookings so far," he said.

But last week's announcement of the re-emergence of the virus in northern Thailand and the death of a 17-year-old boy from bird flu has raised concerns that the disease could still wreak havoc on the country's $12 billion tourism industry.

Operators fear the tourists could disappear if the virus spreads. The SARS outbreak in 2003 dramatically reduced the number of visitors to Thailand in a matter of weeks, although travelers to the country were not considered to face a significant risk.

John Kodlowski of the tourism industry's Pacific Asia Travel Association, said the SARS experience and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami taught Southeast Asian governments the importance of quickly communicating and addressing health risks. He says in the case of bird flu, officials appear to be doing a good job.

"Generally speaking the industry is happy with the way governments are handling it, but of course they always expect them to be right on top of the issue and they expect them to be very open and honest in communicating real risks, real threats and actual activities - what they are doing," he said.

Although it was criticized for its initial slow response to the first bird flu outbreak in 2003, Thailand is now considered to be among the countries best prepared to deal with the virus.

Bird flu outbreaks in Thailand have been largely confined to rural areas where people come into direct contact with infected birds. Health officials have contained those outbreaks by slaughtering thousands of birds. The H5N1 virus has not yet mutated into a form easily passed among humans and most of the more than 130 people who have died from the disease caught it directly from birds.

The latest bird flu outbreak appears to be mainly a worry of Thai tour operators, not tourists.

Bangkok's downtown tourist operators are still busy arranging travel packages for the some 13 million tourists who arrive here each year.

Best Peerapong mans the desk at Inter-Trans Travels and says some of his clients are familiar with bird flu, but it has not cut into his business.

"Customers they come into my office but they do not worry about, no one worries about bird flu," he explained.

The Thai government insisted that the latest outbreak of bird flu could be controlled and also pledged to help poorer neighboring countries fight the disease.