Sun, 08 Jun 2003

Travel industry tells govt to get word out on SARS

Fitri Wulandari, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

With people loath to travel because of the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), an estimated 2,500 travel agents in Indonesia have been brought to the brink of bankruptcy.

It's not the virus which is doing the damage, but the mass hysteria whipped up by fear and ignorance about its spread.

Association of Indonesian Travel Agents (ASITA) chairwoman Meity Robot said some travel agents had introduced cost-cutting measures, such as laying off workers, offering unpaid leave or using a shift system.

Hotels have also suffered, with occupancy rates dropping to an average of 15 percent to 20 percent, compared to 35 percent to 40 percent before the outbreak.

The virus jitters have compounded the problems besetting the country's tourist industry after the Oct. 12 Bali bombings last year and the war in Iraq.

Foreign tourist arrivals at the country's 13 entry points dropped 0.46 percent from 289,764 in February to 288,417 in March, when the virus first surfaced in China and Hong Kong, according to the Central Statistics Agency.

Ticketing and reservations system company Abacus Indonesia reports that bookings for international travel from Indonesia slumped 60 percent during March and April compared to the same period last year.

Flag-carrier Garuda Indonesia, with international routes accounting for 80 percent of its services, is bearing the brunt of the fallout.

It has temporarily suspended or reduced flights to destinations where SARS has been reported, including Singapore, Hong Kong, Taipei, Bangkok, Shanghai and Guangzhou, due to low passenger load factors.

Although Indonesia has recorded only a handful of suspected SARS cases, its location in Asia has been enough to discourage foreign travelers.

Worse still is that Indonesians are also choosing to stay home.

"Indonesians have been consumed by fear of catching this disease. It's stopping them from traveling," Abacus Indonesia managing director Samudra Sukardi told The Jakarta Post.

He blamed the government for not providing clear and accurate information about SARS.

Meity Robot also said the government's mixed messages about the virus were adding to the confusion.

"Don't give conflicting information. One minister said it is not dangerous, but another one refused to send Indonesian workers abroad because of SARS. This inconsistency sends the wrong signal."

Government agencies counter that they are using international events to get out the proper information about Indonesia's SARS status.

"At many international events, we have broadcast the fact that traveling here is safe," the deputy tourism promotion and marketing executive at the Tourism Promotion and Development Board, Udin Saifuddin, told the Post.

Elly Hutabarat, a member of the Pacific Asia Travel Association's international board of experts, said the dissemination of coordinated, balanced news and information would expedite the recovery of Indonesian tourism.

She cited the establishment of two media centers in the first weeks after the Bali bombings as a good example of how to deal with a crisis.

"People got accurate, clear information from reliable sources. This helped the recovery of tourism," Elly said, adding that such centers could be established at a regional level in Asia.

Samudra said the private sector, especially travel agents, should become the focal point for distributing information about SARS to travelers so "they know they are traveling safely".

"With enough accurate information, people will not be afraid to travel," he said.