DAKAR/NEW YORK (Reuters) - The first casualty of a possible U.S. ban on travel to and from Ebola-stricken West African nations could be Washington's ties with the region and, to a lesser degree, travel and resources businesses exposed to it.
The White House said on Friday that such a ban advocated by many lawmakers was an option but was not being considered now. Lawmakers and medical experts are debating how much good or harm a ban could do and what was the best way to prevent Ebola's spread at home.
Such a move would make things worse for the nations of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea battling the outbreak, Liberia’s Information Minister Lewis Brown told Reuters.
"We feel an international travel ban would be absolutely the wrong message to send to the people of West Africa."
In practical terms, cutting off medical professionals and other experts from entering the United States could be "disastrous," Brown said.
It would also be a setback for Washington, which has been at the forefront of international aid efforts sending troops and assistance to help fight the deadly virus that has already killed over 4,500 people.
"Symbolically, isolating the country sends a message to Liberians that they are being abandoned ... A travel ban would also undermine the United States' position as the global leader in the war on Ebola.”
A ban would definitely inflict more economic pain on the three countries than on the United States for which half a billion dollars in trade with the region represents a tiny fraction of its $17 trillion economy.
U.S. businesses most exposed to the Ebola risk, such as airlines, travel agents and importers of West African cocoa and oil, for now are more concerned with a general threat of the virus spreading further than with potential travel restrictions.
There is also little clarity about how such curbs would work in practise and how effective they would be. A group of Republican lawmakers asked President Barack Obama last week for a ban for travellers from the three Ebola-plagued nations, visa restrictions for their citizens and possibly quarantining those who might have been exposed to the virus.
Jamaica, Guyana and several African nations have already imposed travel curbs in the past weeks, but airline experts warn it may prove ineffective given the difficulty in piecing together people's travel history.
U.S. airlines fly to Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal, but they have no direct connections with the three affected countries, so all the traffic from there is coming either through neighbouring countries or major gateways such as Paris, Brussels, Casablanca or Madrid.
If, for example, someone flew from Monrovia in Liberia to Brussels and then to New York on separate tickets, customs officials would not necessarily know the person was coming from an Ebola-hit destination.
"A lot of things today are electronic," said Robert Mann, an airline industry consultant. "They're not physical stamps anymore. You can't rely on some of this documentation."
U.S. airlines are already reporting more than a 70 percent year-on-year drop in travel between the United States and the Ebola-affected nations in the past three months, so a ban might not change that much. Business travel might get hit more, though.
Goran Gligorovic, executive vice president of Omega World Travel Inc., which focuses on corporate customers, said potential travel curbs were a greater concern for clients booking trips to Africa that health risks.
"Travel restrictions are never good news for business traveller," he said.
Oil and cocoa importers are preparing for worst-case scenarios, but for now report little impact on their businesses and hope a potential travel ban will not extend to sea shipments. U.S. chocolate manufacturer Hershey said U.S. cocoa stocks would last well into 2015.
Buyers of West African crude that covers over a third of U.S. import demand can expect it to keep flowing even with a ban in place because of the way it reaches its U.S. destination. Instead of disembarking in ports, big oil tankers transfer, or "lighter," their load onto smaller ships offshore, in some cases in international waters.
A wild card in executive's outlooks is psychology.
David Cote, CEO of Honeywell International Inc, a major supplier of aircraft parts, made that point talking to analysts about the possible fallout from the Ebola outbreak.
"In terms of its actual impact on the U.S.... we don't expect much of an impact there. The thing you can't predict is what that fear quotient is going to do."
Only three Ebola cases have been diagnosed in the United States, but those were enough to spur widespread anxiety and calls for travel bans and other radical steps to contain the disease.
And even as there's no evidence that Ebola was affecting travel outside of Africa, shares of U.S. airlines have come under pressure this week, reflecting concerns that just as during the SARS crisis in 2003, worldwide travel industry will suffer.
(Reporting by Roberta Rampton and Jason Lange in Washington, Luc Cohen, Edward McAllister and Jessica Ault-Resnick, Jeffrey Dastin in New York and Joe Bavier in Abidjan; Writing by Tomasz Janowski; Editing by Ken Wills)
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