For a travel industry already weakened by terrorism, war, and a poor economy, the arrival of SARS — severe acute respiratory syndrome — threatens to be the straw that breaks the camel's back. As Bill Boyd, CMP, CMM, CITE, president and CEO of Sunbelt Motivation and Travel, Dallas, reported from the recent IMEX show,“One DMC from Singapore and Hong Kong told me the only thing missing was locusts. And they weren't sure that wouldn't happen.”

As of mid-April, the World Health Organization had logged more than 3,200 probable cases of SARS worldwide, and at least 154 people had died. In the United States, 193 probable cases were under investigation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mainland China and Hong Kong, where the illness was first discovered, continue to report the greatest number of cases, followed by Singapore, Canada, the United States, and Vietnam. The CDC has issued a travel advisory warning against nonessential trips to China, including the mainland and Hong Kong; Hanoi, Vietnam; and Singapore. Travel business — including meetings — is pulling out of the region in droves.

According to estimates from the Singapore Travel Bureau, hotel average occupancy for March was 63 percent, down 16 percent from the year before. Occupancy for the first week of April was estimated to be in the 30 percent to 40 percent range. Benjamin Cassim, of East West Executive Travelers, a DMC in Singapore, reports that while most leisure travel bookings have canceled for April and some for May and June, “with business meetings, about 40 percent are postponements. We have also had a major conference postponed from early April to November '03.”

“It's very bad,” reports Polly Yu, of Travel Advisers Inc., a DMC that specializes in Hong Kong. “Basically, all our conferences and meetings from May onward are postponing until next year. Since the CDC and the WHO have issued their advisory, there is just too much liability risk … to go to Hong Kong for a meeting.”

Maryanne Weiss, director of education and information services for the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology in Baltimore, postponed a program set for early April in Singapore and relocated one planned for Hong Kong in June. The 110 attendees were coming from mainland China, Hong Kong, Korea, Taiwan, Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, India, and the Middle East for the Singapore workshop, Weiss says. “We started to see cancellations, and the situation in Singapore, which required home quarantine, caused us to make this decision.” That meeting has not been rescheduled. “We will not reschedule until the SARS situation is under control.” But her Hong Kong summit has to go ahead on time — and so it is being moved. A new location hasn't been chosen.

“We're monitoring the CDC Web site on a daily basis,” says Weiss. “We are not making any plans at this point. We're scrutinizing every trip, and if it isn't necessary, we're canceling it.”

Having dealt with a variety of threats and disasters in the past few years, hotels and airlines appear to be trying their best to soften the blow for planners and travelers.

“The response from suppliers has been mainly to waive cancellation charges or charge nominal amounts,” says Cassim. “Cancellation fees are being waived for rebookings at later dates. Cancellations are also being waived without conditions at some properties. The main sentiment among the tourism industry here is that we all recognize what is going on and have to accept cancellations. We are more interested in encouraging those who cancel to rethink the decision and to work with them to find win-win solutions.”

“In a very real way, we are victims of circumstance,” Cassim adds. “The containment measures in Singapore are great, and apart from those in the hospitals, life goes on as normal in our city.”

How much damage SARS does to the travel industry depends a lot on how quickly the illness is contained or burns itself out. “The war didn't really affect our business,” says Yu. “Our forecast for this year was very good, before this.”