The Swine Flu: How Will It Affect the Travel and Meetings Industry?

With 73 confirmed cases, the swine flu is making its way into headlines and conversations across the globe. The World Health Organization confirmed today that 40 of these cases are in the United States, 26 are in Mexico, six are in Canada and one is in Spain.

President Obama has stated that the outbreak is a "cause for concern and requires a heightened state of alert," but that it is not "cause for alarm." Still, European Union Health Commissioner Andorra Vassiliou warned Europeans to postpone non-essential travel to the United States or Mexico due to the swine flu. This made me wonder: how does an outbreak such as this affect meetings and events?

In the past I've blogged about efforts by travel industry professionals to ramp up travel to the United States. We also know that Mexico has had some hardships with tourism thanks to the much publicized violence along the border. The swine flu outbreak—and warnings such as that of the EU health commissioner's—certainly can't help foster travel to these destinations.

Looking back, I found a 2003 report by the World Travel & Tourism Council on the impact of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) in the countries most affected by its outbreak. WHO declared travel advisories for China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Vietnam during that time, and WTTC report said the impact of it on travel and tourism was major.

That year, it estimated 25 percent of the travel and tourism industry GDP would be lost along with a total of 2.8 million industry jobs in China alone. Combined, the other three counties would see a loss of over 100,000 jobs, according to the WTTC research.

The swine flu certainly makes for an uncertain future of tourism in Mexico, and it will certainly be even more of a challenge when combined with the circumstances of the past few months.

"It's hard to say at this stage how deep and how wide and how long this episode will be," Mexican Finance Minister Agustin Carstens recently told the Washington press. "If we are successful the impact should be minor."

Obviously an outbreak of any size makes travelers wary, if it doesn't deter them all together. It certainly is another roadblock in convincing your event attendees to travel. What's interesting about this is that it's also a domestic issue—even big meeting destinations like New York City (where 28 cases have been cited) might now elicit some hesitation. It's still early, but how much will the swine flu outbreak affect your decisions as you plan upcoming meetings?

For more information about the swine flu and current data on cases, make sure to visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.
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