Friday, April 28, 2006 | What do Sept. 11, the Cedar Fire, El Nino and the SARS epidemic have in common? They all, to varying degrees, had a negative impact on the local tourism economy. And now, looming large on the horizon, is the prospect for yet another, perhaps even more catastrophic disaster: a bird-flu pandemic.

Researchers worldwide are studying the bird-flu virus for mutations that will make it more volatile. They are tracking the spread of the virus from country to country, region to region. And, they are building computer models to predict how a possible pandemic will spread among humans.

For now, the virus has not developed the capability to travel and infect through human-to -human contact. Let’s hope it never does. But, understanding how major epidemics and pandemics have spread in the past, scientists know that travelers from one country or region to another are most often, unknowingly, carrying these special delivery packages of disease.

As governments, health organizations and medical professionals discuss measures for controlling the spread of the bird-flu, we have learned that when the pandemic starts, people will be advised to avoid public gatherings and gathering places, including airplanes and conventions.

They will be asked to avoid unnecessary travel, and stay close to home, until the crisis runs its course. Others will be asked not to, or will refuse to, report for work. Many industries and businesses will be seriously impacted should the worst-case scenario occur, but none will be damaged more than travel and tourism.

Yet, it appears that a full-scale pandemic is not required for an unexpected negative impact. In early January, Turkey’s tourism industry “plunged into crisis,” according to the London Times, as foreigners cancelled their hotel reservations after a resort area along the Aegean coast was placed under quarantine because of the spread of the bird-flu virus. And more recently, a survey conducted in March by the American Automobile Association, and reported in USA Today, found that 24 percent of the respondents would cut back on U.S. vacation plans if a human case of avian flu was reported in their state.

Now comes information available on, from a study based on a computer model created by researchers at the U.S. National Institutes of Health’s Fogarty International Center, and published in the March 31 issue of the journal Science, which demonstrates that if a bird-flu pandemic does hit the United States, it may well start in California. The study shows that the bird-flu, which is expected to arrive from Asia, would spread quickly through California’s large, and in some areas, dense population, before moving eastward across the country.

Is there cause for panic? The secretary general of the World Tourism Organization, Francesco Frangialli says no, we must not “fall prey to unnecessary panic about bird flu.” However, he adds, “the tourism industry must not underestimate the threat and needs to keep preparing for the worst should it occur.”

As with so many aspects of our personal and professional lives, while we can look and think globally, we must act locally. Local and regional officials must develop contingencies to mitigate the possible health impacts, and recognize that major segments of the local economy will go off-line during such a crisis.

In preparation, a task-force should be established capable of mobilizing all available resources in order to kick-start every effected segment of the local economy, including the economic engine that is tourism.

Panic? No. Planning? Yes. Let’s get started.

Mike McDowell is executive vice president & chief executive officer of the San Diego Lodging Industry Association. Contact him directly at

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