Asian airports still suffering Marginal improvement since SARS crisis eased

SINGAPORE: The buzz is not yet back at Asia's airports as the fallout from the SARS crisis continues to have a deep impact on passenger numbers, with queues at duty-free shops still depressingly short. 

Retailers at Singapore's gleaming Changi Airport said the place looked more like an empty hangar than a bustling passenger hub during the depths of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak. 

In a story echoed around the vacant halls of airports around the region, businesses slumped drastically at Changi as visitor numbers to Singapore fell by up to 73%. 

“Business was very bad. The airport was very quiet and every retailer was affected,” Katherine Au, a supervisor at one of the major cosmetics outlet at Changi, said. 

Tourist figures to the region had only showed marginal improvements in recent weeks as the SARS crisis eased, and travel industry experts saw a long haul ahead before passenger numbers return to pre-SARS levels. 

“I don't think we will see a buzz anytime soon (at the airports) but there will be an incremental increase,” said Ken Scott, managing director for communications at the Bangkok-based Pacific Asia Travel Association. 

“I think Asia has to go through a credibility period before we can get into a recovery period. By credibility period I mean a period of time whereby SARS is seen to be diminishing and it is happening right now.” 

In Thailand, traffic at Bangkok International Airport had gradually improved but authorities did not expect any major advances soon. 

“The situation has improved a little. I think by the end of this month the fear of SARS could subside but the travel industry will take longer to pick-up,” the airport's deputy manager, Chaiwat Mahithiphark, said. 

Chaiwat said the impact from SARS was far worse than the Sept 11, 2001 terror attacks on the United States or the October 2002 Bali bombing. 

“The repercussions from SARS have been more severe than those incidents in terms of both passengers and flights,” he said. 

Even Japan had experienced a drop in passenger traffic despite having escaped the SARS epidemic. 

“We have not seen any sign of recovery at this moment,” a Narita airport official said. 

“The impact of the Sept 11 terrorist attacks is much smaller that that of SARS.” 

A spokesman for duty-free shops at Narita airport said sales dropped 30% in April and May. 

“We are trying to cope with the difficulties by cutting costs, but that does not help much,” the spokesman said. 

In Taipei, latest figures showed passenger arrivals plummeted 80% at the Chiang Kai-shek International Airport from a year ago. 

The airport's chief of the management services section, Lin Chun-chih, said the numbers were expected to stay at current levels “at least until Taiwan lifts the travel restrictions on passengers coming from other SARS-affected areas.” 

Vietnam had reduced service charges at all airports by 10% to stimulate air traffic and bring tourists back to the country. 

“The situation is certainly worse than the period after the Sept 11, 2001 terror attacks and Bali bomb blast,” said Vietnam Airlines spokesman Nguyen Chan. 

International arrivals to Vietnam in the first five months of 2003 fell 21% from a year ago, authorities said. – AFP  

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