SARS is contagious among people as well as in industry. The figures of losses do not make for pleasant reading.
In Malaysia alone, domestic travel has been slashed by some 60%. The immediate casualties are the hotel and transportation sectors, but other related sectors are not spared either.
Our country has seen tourism bloom into the second-largest foreign exchange earner, second only to manufacturing. It averaged more than RM2bil a month consistently throughout the year.
Although the drop in foreign tourist arrivals is not uniformly spread across the various countries of origin, the overall losses remain dramatic.
According to the Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agencies (Matta), arrivals from Taiwan and Hong Kong have plummeted by 90%, while those from China are near zero.
Tourists from our main source country, Singapore, are down by a similar 80%. Outbound businesses have plunged by 70%.
In a timely call, Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has asked the corporate sector to help tide over these lean times by bringing forward their planned events in hotels and restaurants. It is hoped that the SARS situation would at least have eased towards the later part of the year.
Where budgets permit, functions can be held in these establishments in the interests of the nation’s economy as a whole. In turn, hotels and restaurants can do their part in easing the situation by offering the incentive of lower prices.
The latest data from Matta is not optimistic about hopes of boosting local tourism to compensate for the downturn in foreign tourist arrivals. The push from Cuti-Cuti Malaysia has not seen the desired result from would-be Malaysian holidaymakers.
However, the Penang state government is not about to be deterred. It has invested time and effort in promoting its indigenous scenic sites, with an emphasis on clean air and a healthy environment.
There is no reason why other states cannot do likewise. It is time for each state government to emphasise its own local wonders by taking some pains in proper maintenance and sensible promotion of unique sites for the long term.
If there is any opportunity in adversity, let the SARS tragedy teach local governments about the importance of boosting local tourism as a permanent measure. This can be an alternative to foreign tourist arrivals in hard times, and a complement to international tourism in better times.
There are other important lessons to be learnt, and not just by the health authorities and the medical fraternity about coping better with infectious diseases. Income-generating sectors where jobs and livelihoods are involved should also learn to be more resilient and inventive.
We must all do our share. Since SARS comes as a harsh blow to all, then all of us need to play our part to overcome it.
Above all, Malaysians and foreign visitors alike must display a better appreciation of perspective and common sense. There is a need for taking sensible precautions, but never any reason to panic.