Swine flu gives the jitters to Indian tourism
New Delhi, May 2 (IANS) Already reeling under the impact of global recession, India's travel and trade industry is afraid of being dealt a double blow by swine flu - which has hit the Western world and is said to be the worst health crisis in 90 years.
An NRI from London was admitted in a Delhi hospital Saturday with flu-like symptoms. He has been kept in the isolation ward and his samples have been sent for tests.
Health authorities have issued directions to Indian citizens to avoid 'non-essential travel' to influenza-affected countries, with 15 of at least 160 deaths in Mexico - the epicentre of the infection - confirmed to have been caused by the influenza A (H1N1).
Around 450 infection cases have been reported in the Western world so far.
Tour operator and travel agent O.P. Ahuja, who until earlier this week was saying the inflow of tourists had not been affected by the influenza, now admits the impact is 'gradually' hitting the industry.
'The effect of swine flu is gradually being seen in the tourism sector as the number of inbound tourists is decreasing each day,' Ahuja, chairman and managing director of Delhi-based travel agency Holiday Maker, told IANS.
He said with recession already affecting 30-40 percent of inbound tourists and 10-15 percent of outbound visitors, the influenza had definitely come at a very wrong time.
However, he pointed out, as summers were a lean season, the impact on the flow of foreign tourists would be minimal. 'Probably, if it continues in the latter half of the year, we will see its impact.'
At this time of the year, when India heats up and schools declare a holiday, rich and affluent Indians fly out to fancy and exotic locations.
But Ahuja said the number of outbound tourists had decreased in the past week. 'People are not travelling to the US and South America,' he added.
Described by the WHO as influenza A (H1N1), swine flu has wreaked havoc in the Western world, with 11 countries officially reporting it. Around 450 confirmed cases have been reported worldwide.
To prevent the infection from entering India, the authorities have started screening tourists coming from flu-affected countries like New Zealand, Mexico, the US, Canada, Spain, France and Britain, Austria and Israel.
Although WHO has not advised restriction on regular travel or closure of borders, Indian travellers are now preferring to visit foreign locales untouched by the flu.
'Outbound Indians are thinking twice before travelling abroad. Many of them are opting for domestic travel itself,' said Vijay Thakur, president of the Indian Association of Tour Operators.
'The flu has not affected inbound tourism as much as it has hit outbound tourism. What with recession already hitting the tourism sector badly, this is just bad timing,' he added.
However, he said: 'Had the flu come in the peak tourist season like September or October, it would have hit us very badly. If it continues, it will affect the tourism sector in India. The government has not issued any advisory notice to us as of now,' Thakur said.
Sanjay Kothari, additional secretary in the tourism ministry, said the ministry, along with the health ministry, had asked Indians to defer travel to flu-affected areas. 'We are closely working with the health ministry and are monitoring the situation,' Kothari told IANS.
But Ashish Kishore, head of hotel and retail business of yatra.com, said news of the disease spreading to other countries was just 'hype' and their sales had not been affected.
'Swine flu is a recent phenomenon. It is just about three to four days old. We have not observed any drop in sale or inquiry. People are still travelling to southeastern countries, Europe and the US,' Kishore said.
'For outbound travel, people book their tickets and choose their packages much in advance. So a recent endemic outbreak does not effect our sales or their inclination to travel.'
The year 2008 saw 5.37 million foreigners visit India, higher than the figure of 5.08 million in 2007. However, the figures for December and January - 521,990 and 487,262 respectively - were considered low as these are considered peak tourism months for the country.
(Kavita Bajeli-Datt can be contacted at email@example.com)
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