Virus affects tourism

Greece’s tourism industry is not alone in feeling anxious about a possible spread of the bird flu virus, but anxiety here takes on special urgency with the fact that the virus was yesterday detected in Greece for the first time. According to sources, the first signs of an impact on the industry are apparent in Greeks’ reluctance to travel to Turkey for the extended weekend of October 28-30. Thus, local travel agents are, at present, the only part of the tourism industry feeling the heat. However, Greece’s National Tourism Organization (GNTO) and, at a higher level, the Crisis Management Commission are poised to act if the flu’s spread affects the entire sector. The last time the commission was mobilized was after the catastrophic earthquake in Southeast Asia last December in order to inquire about Greek travelers in the area. According to Nikos Papalexis, general secretary of the Hellenic Association of Travel and Tourism Agents (HATTA), Greeks’ travel abroad on the first long weekend after the end of summer has been affected by two issues: bird flu and households’ economic situation. As a consequence of the first, there is reluctance to travel to Romania and Turkey, the other two European countries in which the bird flu has been detected. Turkey, especially Istanbul, has become an especially important destination for Greek travelers in the past few years, as relations between the two countries have improved. It was the fear of losing important tourist revenues that drove Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to publicly eat chicken the previous week. The GNTO and the crisis commission are also concerned about the possibility of a foreign traveler or a Greek returning from abroad carrying the disease. A similar case has been recorded in Italy. However, medical experts cannot yet agree on the transmission mechanisms of the disease among humans. The Ministry of Health is aware of this and is trying to be as non-alarmist as possible. It has already issued recommendations on measures to take inside planes and airports in case a passenger is diagnosed with bird flu symptoms; it has also issued guidelines for travelers to countries with severe bird flu outbreaks, such as the region of Southeast Asia. However, the ministry does warn that «the emergence of a virus strain that can easily be spread among human beings will be the start point of a bird flu pandemic.» There are fears that, in that case, the effects on the tourism industry will far exceed those caused by the recent SARS and Coxsackie viruses. Minister in the US Tourism Minister Dimitris Avramopoulos, busy promoting Greece abroad following years of relative inactivity by the state, is visiting the United States where he was to receive late last night an award from the country’s biggest travel magazine, Conde Nast Traveler, whose readers chose Myconos as their preferred travel destination. Earlier, Avramopoulos was one of the speakers at a meeting organized by the publication which was attended by tourism industry managers and tour operators. The others were Ed Fuller, president and managing director of Marriott Lodging International; Greg Mitchell of Crystal Cruises and Tom Wright, the vice president of Cathay Pacific airline. Avramopoulos referred to this season’s marketing campaign in the US which will be bigger than last year’s and not limited to the largest cities. Avramopoulos has been joined on the trip by GNTO President Aristidis Kalogeropoulos.