Asian tourism chiefs ponder rebound from SARS

HONG KONG (AP) - As Asia's tourism industry bounces back from its multibillion-dollar losses during the SARS crisis, experts said Monday that more joint marketing and better sharing of information could help the business move forward. 

Hong Kong's airport boss, meanwhile, told a regional forum that traffic was picking up more quickly than earlier predicted after collapsing when the World Health Organisation warned people in April to avoid visiting the territory. 

Airport Authority Chairman Victor Fung had previously said it would take until December for Hong Kong traffic to reach 80 percent of pre-SARS levels - after airlines canceled thousands of flights and lost millions of dollars - but it had already recovered to that point by this past weekend. 

"We're now hopeful of a full recovery by December,'' Fung told the travel conference organized by the Boao Forum for Asia, the World Tourism Organization and Hong Kong's government. 

"Potential travelers are realizing that the worst is behind us.'' 

SARS cost Asia's travel business US$11 billion in the first two months of the outbreak, said Philippine tourism secretary Richard Gordon, who also serves as chairman of the Pacific Asia Travel Association. 

Gordon said joint marketing and promotion of Asia as a destination where travelers from outside the region can make several stops would help the industry recover and make it stronger in the future. 

After seeing big blows to tourism from terrorism and SARS, Gordon also said that better sharing of information would help nations better deal with future crises that can harm the travel business. 

Hong Kong's government leader, Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, said the territory's economy and its tourism industry are recovering from SARS, with more visitors arriving from mainland China, the United States, Japan and elsewhere. 

Tung also said at the start of the two-day forum that the impact of SARS is likely to be temporary in Hong Kong, which was hit particularly hard by the respiratory ailment. 

Tung was interrupted briefly by an environmental activist who shouted about banning trash incinerators. Tung appeared startled and stopped speaking for about a minute while the man was removed from the conference hall. 

Severe acute respiratory syndrome sickened more than 8,400 people worldwide and killed about 800, with most patients and fatalities in Asia. 

Travel advisories from the World Health Organization devastated air travel in the region and left many hotels and restaurants suffering big losses. 

Airlines that canceled thousands of flights are now rebuilding their schedules and many in Asia's tourism industry are now trying to lure back business through steep discounts. - AP

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