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More Governments, Travel Companies React to Swine Flu Outbreak, Travel Bans In Effect

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Face MaskAs fears of swine flu (or H1N1 virus) grow, an increasing number of governments and travel companies are taking measures to prevent the spread of the disease while attempting to accommodate passengers who may wish to cancel or postpone their trips.

On Tuesday Cuba became the first country to impose a travel ban on Mexico, and Argentina followed suit soon thereafter.

Argentine Cabinet Chief Sergio Massa said that the ban, which is in effect until Sunday, is not meant to punish Mexico but to protect Argentina’s citizens.

On Wednesday France’s minister of health asked the European Union to suspend all flights to Mexico, but so far no action has been taken to that end.

As a goodwill gesture to travelers spooked by the bug, many large hotel and resort chains with properties in Mexico are relaxing their cancellation policies for those who want to opt out of a pre-booked trip.

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Starwood, Marriott, Intercontinental, and Hyatt are all allowing guests to cancel or change bookings without penalty. Club Med is not allowing cancellations, but is allowing customers to make date changes without paying extra fees.

Cruise shipDespite the fact that very few cases of the flu have been reported in coastal Mexican resort towns, six major cruise lines suspended port stops for ships scheduled to dock in the country this week. Most are offering alternate stops or more time at sea instead.

Many analysts see the move as a wise one intended to protect passengers from a shipboard epidemic. If even a single cruise passenger were to contract the flu virus in port, it would be able to spread very quickly in the close confines of a ship before the person was even symptomatic.

Flight attendants are trying to protect their ranks as well. On Monday the Association of Flight Attendants union sent a letter to the FAA asking that the agency develop standard screening protocols to identify passengers with flu, and also requested that airlines provide gloves and masks for flight staff to wear. In addition they asked that sick days taken due to swine flu not be counted against their accrued sick day allotment.

The already depressed travel industry is getting hit hard by the restrictive measures imposed by various countries and companies, with Mexico suffering the most.

Mexico was already reeling from the recession-driven drop in tourists and the travel fears fueled by border-town drug violence, but now with the flu epidemic the industry is really hitting the doldrums.

Though the exact numbers of flight and hotel cancellations is not known yet, the drop in tourism over the last few days has caused Mexican stocks and the peso to plunge. Mexico City, which has been virtually shut down since the weekend, is said to be losing $57 million a day, which equals a 36 percent drop in tourism revenue.

By Karen Elowitt for PeterGreenberg.com.

Related links: Associated Press, USA Today, Yahoo-AP, USA Today, Google-AP, USA Today

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