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People Should Be Traveling — WHO Message from the President of Pacific Asia Travel Association re SARS

An important message from Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) President and CEO, Mr. Peter de Jong:

I want to share with you my personal impressions of a presentation by Dr. David Heymann, Executive Director of the World Health Organization (WHO), which I attended on April 28 in Bangkok. Dr. Heymann was in Bangkok to address the heads of state of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) plus China (PRC) and Hong Kong SAR on the SARS situation facing the region.

At a time when the SARS paranoia is having a devastating effect on our industry, I felt it important to listen to this authoritative WHO spokesperson who came to share the latest findings on SARS with Asia`s government leaders, and report these findings to you.

Dr. Heymann said, in effect, there was nothing about the SARS virus that should prevent people from travelling. He was concerned that the WHO`s efforts to keep the public informed about the spread of the virus had had the unfortunate effect of discouraging travel to, from and through our region.

Dr. Heymann regretted the public perception that travellers were exposed to undue risks of contracting SARS. He said: We want tourists to understand risk is greater, as they perceive it, than it actually is.

He told the press: We realise that the travel industry is hurting and we want to help get the risk perception right. Now that effective monitoring and exit screening is in place, there is no good reason why people shouldn`t be travelling in the same numbers as previously.

Importantly, Dr. Heymann confirmed that the travel experience was NOT a contributor to the spread of SARS. He emphasised that the public perception of this virus, which has caused a serious downturn in travel and tourism, was based upon an inaccurate interpretation of information that had been provided by the WHO to governments and the public.

I think it is extremely important for PATA members and the travel and tourism industry at large to know that this information came from a senior executive of the world`s foremost public health authority. It is essential that this reassurance be communicated onwards throughout our industry and to the public.

Dr. Heymann reported the good news that Vietnam had successfully managed to contain the spread of the disease and that SARS had peaked in several other countries (but not China (PRC)). If this trend continues, it will probably result in several other destinations being taken off the WHO list of SARS-affected areas in the coming days and weeks. Today, April 30, the travel advisory for Toronto was lifted. These are encouraging signs.

Dr. Heymann admitted: SARS has had an unnecessarily negative impact on the economy, travel, trade and tourism because of unrealistic fear. The public must make better judgements.

It is PATA`s role to provide accurate and balanced information so that the public can make informed travel decisions.

For too long the public perception has been that travellers and the travel industry were the culprits and conduits responsible for the transmission of SARS. I am relieved to learn that our industry is not to blame, nor should our customers be penalised or discouraged. Travel is as safe today as it was several months ago.

Let`s get this message out to the global marketplace – quickly and effectively.

Peter de Jong

PATA President and CEO

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TravelDailyNews Asia-Pacific editorial team has an experience of over 35 years in B2B travel journalism as well as in tourism & hospitality marketing and communications.