x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Travel firms see bookings fall as fears of swine flu rise

The news comes as the Ministry of Health announced the UAE's sixth and seventh confirmed cases of the illness.

ABU DHABI // Travel agencies are reporting a significant drop in the number of summer holiday bookings amid concerns about swine flu. The news came as the Ministry of Health announced the UAE's sixth and seventh confirmed cases of the illness. According to the state news agency, WAM, an Emirati woman arriving from abroad with her family, and a Chinese child also arriving from overseas, have been infected with the virus.

Several travel companies report up to a 30 per cent decrease in bookings for trips between mid-June and mid-August, when many Emirati families head to Europe, south-east Asia or Australia. Some said clients were simply waiting to see whether the pandemic subsided before buying tickets; others said bookings for the year were down because of the global recession. "It is mainly about the swine flu and the quarantine clauses in various countries that they enter - that is a major concern for my clients," said John Kailath, tours manager for Omeir Holidays in Abu Dhabi. "Everyone is unsure of the procedures. They are not sure how long they could be detained for, what sort of medication may be available, and whether they will be separated from their family. People feel that they are safer at home."

As of yesterday, England had confirmed 2,944 cases and Spain had more than 500 cases of the H1N1 virus. The number of reported cases worldwide reached 52,160 on Monday, according to the World Health Organisation's (WHO) latest available figures. In Lebanon the number of confirmed cases stood at 12 and in Malaysia, authorities rushed to close several schools on Monday after a student was said to have contracted the virus from a classmate. The total number of cases in Malaysia stands at 23.

Ismail Juha, sales manager with Safar Travel and Tourism, Abu Dhabi, said several clients had postponed their travel plans until next month and there had been more enquiries about non-European destinations such as Turkey and other GCC countries. "You feel people are really worried," Mr Juha said. "My clients prefer to travel with the whole family, including children and elders. There is concern for them."

He said his customers preferred cities over the countryside for shopping, visiting historic sites or museums and participating in cultural activities, but "tourists from other places are also there and they are afraid of contracting" the virus. He added that the biggest fear for his clients, however, was being exposed to H1N1 in airports and aircraft. "Although I have reassured them of the treatments and facilities that are available and that UAE embassies will be the first to help, they are concerned about risking the health of their children and elders."

There also is added stigma attached to the name of the virus, which has negative implications in Arab Muslim communities, he said. Waleed Taher, a banking official in Sharjah, who travels to England at least twice a year, is "longing" to travel. But he said that because of concerns aired by family, friends and elders, he had postponed his plans until after Ramadan. "My favourite hobby is to travel," Mr Taher said. "Some of my friends are also afraid. I advise them sometimes and I know there is a solution for [swine flu] with Tamiflu and doctors in airports who are checking, but it is overall risky.

"I feel like I am in-between in my thoughts to travel. I want to but also I don't want to. This has been a negative year. First the financial crisis, and now the health crisis." Abdelrahman Mohamed, an engineer with the Sharjah Electricity and Water Authority, said that despite the concerns of his parents, he had recently taken a business trip to Germany. "I was worried about the swine flu, but when I reached there, I realised I had nothing to be concerned about," he said. "We even talked to our German colleagues about the situation, and they reassured us as well."

After his trip, he has tried to reassure friends and colleagues in the UAE. "I told my colleague who was going to France, 'Believe me, you will change your mind. There is nothing at all to be worried about,'" he said. Pearl Mandilag, office manager for Al Raheeb Travels, Al Mariah branch, said: "There are lots of inquiries but no finalisations. They are waiting for updates on the situation," "It is not only the flu, but also recession. No one has specifically asked for swine flu-free countries, but they are asking for cheaper packages."

An Etihad Airways spokesman said passenger numbers had not been affected by the pandemic. Thomas Clarke added that planes were flying 79 per cent full. He also said the airline "had not seen a noticeable shift in destinations that UAE-based customers are flying to for their summer holidays". WAM reported last night that the two new swine flu cases in this country were receiving hospital treatment.

The news agency quoted a health ministry statement as saying: "The condition of the infected woman and child, who are now receiving treatment in hospital, is stable." sbhattacharya@thenational.ae