Tourists already skittish about traveling in a time of war have turned away from Cambodia and Asia in large numbers as a mysterious and sometimes fatal illness known as severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, spreads across the region, tourism officials said.
The illness has killed dozens of people and sickened thousands more over the weekend without signs of slowing its spread from southern China, where it is believed to have originated.
A quarter to a third of the tourists expected to land in Cambodia this month have canceled their plans, according to Meng Phalla, secretary-general for the Cambodia Association of Travel Agents.
“There was six out of 15 group tours who canceled [at my business],” he said. Even more alarming: Some 30 percent fewer tourists have visited Angkor Wat so far this year compared with last year due to fears of the Iraq war and SARS, officials said.
Though no known cases have been reported in Cambodia, many international tourists who had plans to stop here also were planning visits to cities where the disease is being widely reported; many have just junked their itineraries and are staying at home, Meng Phalla said
“The tourists are scared of other places,” agreed Kousoum Saroeuth, director general for the Ministry of Tourism.
Until recently the tensions in Iraq were responsible for much of the tourism downturn, Kousoum Saroeuth said. Europeans were canceling their trips but Asians continued to come to Siem Reap, he said. That changed as the SARS outbreak became widely known.
Tourists have been blamed for the worldwide spread of the disease since it first appeared in early February. SARS appears to have originated in China’s Guangdong province, where a man admitted to a hospital with the illness two months ago infected dozens of doctors and nurses. One of the doctors then traveled to Hong Kong for a wedding, infecting nine people at the hotel where he was staying.
The international destinations of travelers passing through Hong Kong, a major transportation hub, ensured the disease’s passage to the rest of the world.
Siem Reap’s hotels have reported widespread losses at a time of year when the luxury Pansea and Grand Hotel d’Angkor hotels usually host booming numbers of travelers, tourism officials said. The Pansea, with rooms priced from $310 to $280, has 50 percent fewer guests than usual, said Kheoung Sopheap, the front office supervisor at the 55-room hotel.
Just 17 out of 131 rooms at the Grand Hotel d’Angkor have guests, according to hotel officials. This time of year would normally see some 50 to 60 rooms reserved.
Construction projects for new hotels continue despite the downturn as few expect the SARS cases or the war to plague tourism for long. The Royal Phnom Penh hotel company is still expected to begin construction on a multi-million dollar five-star hotel later this year to replace the hotel lost to the Jan 29 riots, Kousoum Saroeuth said.
Investors are more concerned about the coming elections than they are about the war or SARS, Kousoum Saroeuth said. “I think all investors are waiting to see how the situation looks after the elections. It will depend on the Cambodian government to provide a good atmosphere for the investment community.”
Health officials in Bangkok, Hong Kong and Singapore are screening passengers at the airport.
Here in Cambodia, Dr Chhim Kimsan, chief of the quarantine department at the Ministry of Health, said the doctors have found no cases of SARS in the past 10 days among travelers arriving in Cambodia.
A doctor is at the airport with an ambulance to ferry anyone with SARS symptoms to Calmette for treatment. That may be of limited value, however, as health experts studying the disease say there is not yet any known treatment for it.
The Ministry of Health has also drawn up a paper form for travelers to fill out in an attempt to better document any cases of the disease. The form has not yet been approved and is still under discussion with representatives from the airport, airlines, Ministry of Civil Aviation and the Ministry of Health.
“The form could be very important to know the health conditions of the passengers coming through Cambodia,” Chhim Kimsan said
Meng Phalla said his clients tell him they are afraid of airplanes where they could catch the contagious disease.
Health experts say at least one of the cases involved an airline stewardess who served a man showing symptoms of the illness, though there is little evidence that passengers on planes face a heightened risk of contracting SARS.