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Asia travel not yet hit by bird flu

Travel operators say it is far to early to tell whether they will be impacted.
Travel operators say it is far to early to tell whether they will be impacted.

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LONDON, England (Reuters) -- The rapid spread of the deadly bird flu virus in Asia has not hit sales of leisure or business travel to the region, say top travel operators, but all remain on their guard.

The H5N1 strain of the avian influenza virus, which is stronger than its H5N2 sibling, claimed its seventh victim on Monday, killing a six-year-old boy in Thailand. The other six fatalities have all been in Vietnam.

But so far there has been no sign of the type of panic that devastated travel to and tourism in the region at the height of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) pandemic in 2002 and 2003.

A spokeswoman for regional airline Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd said the airline had not seen any sudden changes or adjustments to bookings due to the outbreak.

"After the Chinese New Year is traditionally a quiet period for us, but we haven't seen any sudden changes in bookings," said spokeswoman Lisa Wong.

Thailand has expanded its bird flu crisis zone to 10 of its 76 provinces as it grapples with a virus the World Health Organization (WHO) fears might combine with human influenza and unleash a flu pandemic on a scale similar to SARS.

But there is as yet no evidence that bird flu can be transmitted between people, and all of the human cases so far have contracted the illness from sick fowl. There is also no evidence that eating chicken can pass on the virus.

Even so, Cathay Pacific said it had told airline caterers in Vietnam, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan to substitute all poultry dishes with pork or fish. Chicken served on other routes did not come from countries infected with bird flu, it said.

British Airways, Britain's top long-haul airline, said it "was far too early to tell" whether there would be any SARS-like impact on its business.

Tourist travel operators, too, said despite some of the alarmist headlines appearing in the media, travellers had thus far adopted a sanguine approach.

A spokeswoman for Neckermann Reisen, the German brand of tour operator Thomas Cook, said the company was carefully monitoring the situation but it had seen no sign of a slowdown.

"Asian bookings are doing fine; we are seeing bookings for Thailand coming in better than last year. We are not expecting a big effect on tourism from this," he said.

Some western governments were criticized during the SARS outbreak for not issuing advice quickly enough to warn their citizens against traveling to the region.

Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office noted the outbreak on its website but did warn travelers to stay away from Thailand, Vietnam, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, Cambodia or Pakistan, all of which have reported outbreaks.

"Travelers...are not likely to be affected, but should avoid bird markets, farms and places where they may come into contact with live poultry," the FCO said in its advice on Thailand.

Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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