Newspaper article International New York Times

For Travel Pros, Ebola Fears Create Teaching Moments

Newspaper article International New York Times

For Travel Pros, Ebola Fears Create Teaching Moments

Article excerpt

The effects in the business travel industry have been negligible so far, but concerns are growing.

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

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 United States. In the United States 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 was 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; and 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 epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, in Asia in 2003.

"We've seen this before with SARS, and we're trying to learn from that experience," Greeley Koch, 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 percent full."

Because of the SARS crisis, passenger traffic at Hong Kong International Airport was off 85 percent in May 2003, compared with May 2002. That summer, I visited Hong Kong where business travel was so weak that I found a harbor-view suite at the Peninsula Hotel for $39 a night. The same suite today costs more than $1,500 a night.

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

Yet there was obvious concern. On a questionnaire, about half of the executives said their travelers expressed at least some concern about exposure to Ebola, and 15 percent said their travelers expressed "strong concern." Half supported the idea of a travel ban to and from the affected West Africa countries. …

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