2003 was marked by a number of natural disasters throughout the world, but none more devastating and threatening than the outbreak of a new virus now known as SARS. In this paper, I will focus primarily on the economic affect of the disease to the tourism industry in Southeast Asia. I argue that the magnitude of the affect SARS had on the tourism industry is attributable to three factors: the nature of the virus, the reaction by World Health Organization officials, and finally, the inadequacy in which local governments (specifically the Chinese) handled the epidemic. Finally, I will touch on the affects SARS has had on the tourism industry thus far, and its future implications.
In order to understand the effects of SARS in the world economic climate, specifically that of tourism, it is important to explore the disease itself. SARS (Sever Acute Respiratory Syndrome) is a form of pneumonia caused by a newly discovered coronavirus1.
A coronavirus is one that generally targets the respiratory system, and in most cases, causes pneumonia-like symptoms (1). Coronaviruses, however, usually only affect small animals. In the case of the SARS coronavirus, researchers believe it started with animals, and migrated to human beings (1).
Similar to other coronaviruses, SARS was spread primarily by close contact (particularly involving breathing) between individuals (1). Scientists have not eliminated the possibility that the virus can be spread in other ways, such as contact with an infected object or bodily fluids (1). Scientists studying a May outbreak in Hong Kong admit there may be other means of spreading the virus other than close contact (1). After the appearance of the SARS virus outside many of the original quarantine zones, the World Health Organization declared that other factors needed to be considered (1). In a June 2 address on their Website, they write, "These developments raise questions as to other routes of transmission, in addition to well-documented face-to-face exposure to droplets released when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Epidemiologists are considering whether SARS is being transmitted in Hong Kong by some environmental means for which no satisfactory explanation has been found"2.
What is known about the virus, is that it enters the body and immediately begins a two to ten day incubation period (1). The relatively lengthy incubation period means that symptoms from the virus are delayed, sometimes as long as fourteen days (1).
The most common initial symptom is a fever, followed by chills, headache, muscle soreness, and a general feeling of discomfort (1). Following the initial symptoms is the development of a dry cough, and in some cases, hypoxemia (massive reduction of oxygen in the blood, which usually requires assisted breathing) (1).
There are no specific treatments for SARS, so those infected need to let the virus "run its course" in order to survive. Of some benefit for patients are empiric therapies against typical and atypical respiratory pathogens3. The means of the viruses' transportation is not yet fully understood, so those in areas exposed to SARS should take precautions, especially around infected individuals, such as: proper hand hygiene, gloves, gowns, facial masks, and also eye protection (3).
The rapid spread and devastation caused by the SARS virus can be attributed to the characteristics previously mentioned. Firstly, the virus has a relatively long incubation period, preventing infected individuals from immediately realizing they are sick. Secondly, the virus has only recently been identified, and there are no treatments currently available for it. This means that victims are essentially at the will of the strength of the virus relative to their immune system's response.
Perhaps the most important factor contributing to the threat of SARS is the means by which it spreads. Being a respiratory virus, it is airborne in the proximity around those infected. Also, making the spread of SARS even more problematic is the recent disclosure by scientists that there is a good chance the virus is spreading by other means other than the air. This means that SARS could possibly be contained in an area long abandoned by infected individuals, which adds to the uncertainty of this already mysterious virus.
To begin the exploration on how the virus affected tourism, I will begin with a timeline of the SARS outbreak. The initial onset of the virus is unknown, but Chinese officials made its first acknowledgement in early February of 20034. By mid February, there were about 300 known cases of SARS in China (4). The disease became an international dilemma when, in early March, a woman who had traveled to Hong Kong died in Toronto, Canada (4). Less than a week later, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a global SARS alert. By mid-March, Canada confirmed eleven cases of SARS, mostly in contained in the central region of the country surrounding Toronto (4).
Weeks later, doctors working with SARS victims came down with similar symptoms and the world became aware of how easily and rapidly the virus could spread. Countries surrounding China, such as Singapore, immediately begin quarantining individuals who had recently visited the country (4). Back in Canada, the disease spread despite measures to quarantine (4). By March 26, there were 26 confirmed cases of SARS, and the province of Ontario declared a public health emergency (4).
By late March, the World Health Organization got involved in preventing the spread of SARS (4). They ordered mandatory screenings for all passengers leaving what were considered SARS "hot spots." The precautions, however, did little to slow the spread. By early April, there were one hundred and sixty-three cases of SARS in the Toronto area, and three hundred and sixty-one new cases reported in China (4).
By late April, Canadian officials purported to have the virus quarantined, but the World Health Organization refused to lift travel advisories (4). Twenty days of no new confirmed cases finally persuaded the World Health Organization to lift its travel advisory to Canada (4). China, however, continued to struggle with the epidemic, and closed all schools (4).
By early May, the World Health Organization announced that the virus is no longer spreading in Canada (except in the quarantine zones), but China remained a SARS "hot spot" (4). The remainder of the month of May was marked by more outbreaks (primarily in China) and more deaths by those already infected (4).
June marked the decline of the SARS outbreaks (4). Many Southeast Asian countries were removed from the World Health Organization's list of possible "hot spots" after twenty days without a new case reported (4). By mid June, the organization downgraded the overall situation in China, while maintaining precautions for the city of Beijing (4).
The economic affects, specifically those related to the tourism in Southeast Asia, closely mirrored the progress of the virus and the official reactions to it (both from national leaders and multinational organizations). When the World Health Organization initially recognized the spread of virus, it focussed its attention on Hong Kong. Immediately, travel advisories were issued for potential travelers throughout the world intending on visiting the city. Perpetuating the fears of tourists is the quarantine of thousands of people both in China, and neighboring Singapore (4).
The World Health Organization's recognition of the disease was immediately followed by the disclosure of over a thousand infected people in Hong Kong (a number much higher than was originally estimated). What ensued was somewhat of a "panic," by the World Health Organization and other international organizations tracking the virus. Less than a week after the recognition of the virus, the World Health Organization was "rushing" to get the virus under control (4).
The hot spots at the time (Singapore, Hanoi, Taiwan, and the Chinese province of Guangdong) were immediately ordered to screen all passengers leaving the areas. News of these measures alarmed potential travelers throughout the world. Not before long, government officials under the World Health Organization's mandate were closely screening all potential hot spots (4). Not only were tests being performed on those in the areas, but also large quarantines were being enforced (4). Additionally, many countries were not allowing their citizens to either visit China, or return from it until the situation was under control.
The nature of SARS greatly contributed to the massive decrease in tourism in Southeastern Asia, but so did the aggressive response from the World Health Organization. Day after day, potential travelers were bombarded with reports from the organization stressing the severity of the SARS situation. Had the virus been addressed sooner, the severity of the situation (and desperation displayed by World Health Organization) might have been to a lesser degree, and travelers may not have been so cautious about visiting Southeastern Asia. In his article, "The Economic Impact of SARS," Lester Thurow explains that the severity of the warnings affected business as well as recreational travel5. He writes, " (Business) Firms don't want their employees to get sick on a business trip both because they are genuinely concerned about their employee's welfare and because they would face huge liability costs if they knowingly sent some…