I’m off to Argentina and Brazil later this week while various voices within this country continue to advocate closing U.S. borders and restricting travel to control the spread of the influenza A(H1N1) virus, or swine flu.
No one at this point can confidently predict the course of the epidemic, but H1N1 appears to have characteristics that may well make it more challenging than the common flu, an annual event that cuts a significant swath through the U.S. population. In the days following the initial outbreak of the virus, Roger Dow, the president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, referred to swine flu as an “infodemic” rather than an epidemic, and as of this writing, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recorded 5,469 cases of H1N1 in the United States, a relatively low number.
The World Health Organization has come out against limiting travel and imposing travel restrictions, which its experts believe “would have very little effect on stopping the virus from spreading, but would be highly disruptive to the global community.”
Looking back at the progression of SARS in 2003 and avian flu since 2004, it’s clear that the social symptom—fear—can have a more significant impact than the actual disease itself. In response to SARS, international arrivals to Southeast Asia declined by 50 percent and the regional Asian economy suffered a loss of $20 billion; the avian flu claimed fewer victims but had a similarly devastating economic effect. In the United States, where international travelers account for $110.5 billion in spending (a number that will vastly increase now that the Travel Promotion Act of 2008 has gained Senate approval), it is estimated that it will take an additional six months after H1N1 abates for international arrivals to the U.S. to return to positive growth.
The picture is far more grim for our south-of-the-border neighbor, Mexico, where the swine flu appears to have originated, on the heels of a headline-grabbing epidemic of another sort: drug wars and violence. One can hope that the lifting of a U.S. travel alert on May 15 will ease some of the problems, but a friend and colleague in the travel world, who recently returned from a favorite hacienda in southern Mexico, sent me an e-mail: “I feel so bad for all of them. Maybe you can do something….”
In reality, what I can do is to continue covering travel for the magazine and experiencing it for myself with dedication, enthusiasm, and pleasure. It’s a rather easy goal. This month, in addition to T+L’s cover story on summer escapes across America and our companion piece, a roundup of 23 Best U.S. Seaside Inns, we travel far and wide—from the classic resort of Deauville, on France’s northwestern coast (“Exploring France’s Northern Coast”), to Cape Town, with its buzzing design scene (“Cape Town’s Rising Art Scene”), and Ladakh, in the Indian Himalayas (“Northern India’s Cultural Tourism”), where a new model of cultural tourism is taking hold. No matter the circumstances, the world moves on—and the urge to travel always wins out in the end.