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Joe Sharkey: For travel pros, Ebola fears create teaching moments

Among the things that would come in handy for business travellers concerned about the possible effects of Ebola on international travel is a map of the world.

On that map, the Ebola outbreak can be marked at crisis levels in a handful of West African countries, with a few confirmed cases elsewhere, including three in the US. In the US and Spain, a small number of people who came into contact with Ebola are also under medical observation. But concerns are growing about the effects in the business travel industry, which will account for about $ 1.18 trillion in global spending this year, according to the Global Business Travel Association.

The concerns reflect the growing fears about Ebola contagion, heightened by anxiety-inducing news: a transit station in Dallas shut down when a train passenger was wrongly thought to have vomited on a platform; a cruise ship blocked from a port call in Mexico last week because a passenger, quarantined on board, worked in the lab of a Dallas hospital where an Ebola patient died; schools in some places shut down because an employee might have been on the same airplane that carried an Ebola patient; a harrowing report in The New York Times on Sunday that Texas planned to instruct nearly 100 health care workers to avoid public transportation, shops and restaurants for the 21-day maximum incubation period for Ebola.

The business travel industry is warily monitoring the situation, aware of the huge losses suffered during the panic in the severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, epidemic in Asia in 2003.

“We’ve seen this before with SARS, and we’re trying to learn from that experience,” Greeley Koch, the executive director of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives, said in a telephone interview from Copenhagen, where the group’s three-day global conference opened on Sunday. “With SARS, people did start to panic. We were hearing of flights being only 20 per cent full.”

Because of the SARS crisis, passenger traffic at Hong Kong International Airport was off 85 per cent in May 2003, compared with May 2002. That summer, I visited Hong Kong, where business travel was so weak that I found a harbour-view suite at the luxury Peninsula Hotel for $ 39 a night. The same suite today costs more than $ 1,900 a night.

Over the weekend, 500 business travel executives arrived to attend the conference in Copenhagen, said Jack Riepe, a spokesman. “There were no cancellations because of Ebola,” he said.

But concern was obvious. On a questionnaire, about half of the executives said their travellers expressed at least some concern about exposure to Ebola, and 15 per cent said their travellers expressed “strong concern”. Half supported the idea of a travel ban to and from the affected countries in West Africa. And asked whether they were confident in the capabilities of regional and international health authorities to confine Ebola, a third replied that they had “lost confidence” in authorities, echoing growing criticisms that world health organisations have botched the response to Ebola.

“Certainly the latest news reports are drawing more concern about travel, and I think that mood could worsen if the sense grows that this is not getting under control,” said Michael McCormick, the executive director of the Global Business Travel Association. The organisation said that in an online survey of members, 80 per cent said that the Ebola crisis had had little or no impact so far on business travel. But most said they were stepping up efforts to keep travellers informed.

“The mood we are getting here is, let’s not panic; let’s do the right thing for our employees and also try to make sure the governments are doing the right thing,” Koch added.

The Air Line Pilots Association, which represents more than 51,000 pilots in North America, also called on government agencies to perform better. In a statement, the union called for airlines to “remain vigilant in reviewing protocols and procedures for cleaning and sanitising aircraft cabin interiors following a possible exposure event”.

That was a reference to an incident in which a Dallas hospital worker who later tested positive for Ebola took a Frontier Airlines flight from Dallas to Cleveland on October 10, then returned October 13 on an airplane that made five additional flights before being taken out of service. Authorities are now trying to notify about 800 passengers in all who flew on those flights to arrange follow-up health checks.

As of the weekend, more than 4,500 deaths had been attributed to Ebola, most of them in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, where most commercial air travel has stopped. No commercial flights from the US directly serve those West African countries. But the effects on travel are being felt throughout the vast African continent nevertheless.

“Not to in any way question the horror of Ebola in West Africa, but some people hear the word Ebola and think Africa is just one big country, rather than 54 individual countries,” said Hayden Turner, who operates a company based in London that runs safari trips in Namibia, South Africa and other countries in Africa – thousands of miles away from the affected areas.

Safaris and eco-tours are a major part of African tourism. In Namibia, tourism accounts for almost 15 per cent of the nation’s gross domestic product. But Ebola fears have severely affected the safari business, even though safaris are centred far from the affected areas, said Turner, who also does television programmes about travel in Africa. “I’ve definitely seen a huge drop in inquiries,” he said in an interview from Copenhagen.

“People have gotten a little lazy about understanding geography,” he added.


Jsharkey@nytimes.com
© 2014 The New York Times

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