As recently as 5 weeks ago a world already gripped by the economic downturn was suddenly put into a new state of panic. An illness never heard of before was hitting the global headlines, generating fears of a global pandemic. Swine flu.

As numbers of reported cases increased and counts of lives taken moved into double and triple digits, the red light began to flash. Its location: Mexico.

Within a matter of days one of the world’s largest cities – Mexico City – went into lock-down (costing the city a estimated US$ 88 million per day in lost commerce over a five day city closure period). One of the world’s leading tourism destinations – Mexico – went into paralysis. The resulting tourism economy (representing 8% of GDP – the nation’s third largest economic sector) went into shock as visitors to the destination at the time were put into surgical masks (and quarantine if showing signs of flu-like symptoms), travel advisories were issued discouraging non-essential travel to the destination, hotel occupancy levels sank to single digits and bookings of imminent travellers were cancelled.

Across the globe the effects of the H1N1 scare could be felt, tangibly and intangibly. The world map started to develop a rash. Red spots began to appear on countries across the globe as international news networks began tracking numbers of suspected, and confirmed cases of Swine Flu. As quickly as airplanes could cross oceans the dots would start to appear.

Travellers went into drug stores in search of preventative vaccines. Pharmaceutical companies went into overdrive to build up supplies while their share prices built up in value. And pigs went into hiding.

The fears of a global pandemic spread with as much speed and intensity as the modeling developed during the early days of Bird Flu to help us understand how quickly a virus of this nature could travel. Worst case scenario was being planned for, best case was being prayed for.

To the relief of millions the actual reach and impact of the H1N1 virus was far less than that of previous health scares which took many lives over this past decade – SARS and Avian Flu. Yet fear has remained both within international medical systems and in the minds of travellers. In Asia where the memory of the SARS outbreak and its resulting catastrophic impact on the economy is still fresh, travellers can be seen walking around airports wearing masks, looking suspiciously at anyone who may sneeze. Where once one would instinctively say “God bless you”, today one wonders “are you?”

In so many ways 2009 has been a year of great ills – economic, medical, emotional. For those of us in the Travel & Tourism industry news of fears of a possible pandemic caused immediate concern – what will this do to an already very fragile sector? How much worse can it get?

As voiced by the WTTC in April 2009,

The present economic uncertainties have already taken a heavy toll on demand across the globe and they will continue to endanger millions of jobs in one of the largest industries in the world. The swine flu outbreak is compounding the ailments of the global economy just as there are signs it might be starting to stabilize.”

Mexico, as a result of the Swine Flu outbreak, was the first destination to see travellers cancelling travel plans, arresting much-needed injections of energy and revenues into the destination. International news reports to this day provide updates on expected losses of the AH1N1 virus on Mexico. One month after the crisis hit global headlines Chinese press reported on May 02nd, 2009:

Mexico’s tourism has been hit hard by the outbreak of the A/H1N1 flu, the Mexican government said Saturday. The occupancy rate for major tourist sites in Mexico is expected to decline by 44.8 percent in the coming ten days, Mexican tourism authorities predicted. A series of cultural, business and academic activities in Mexico have been canceled. In such resorts as Cancun and the Maya coast, the occupancy rate of hotels, which should have been flooded with tourists in this season, has decreased to 77.8 percent since April 23 when the government announced urgent anti-flu measures. Such countries as Cuba, Canada, Argentina, Ecuador, Peru and Chile have canceled their flights to Mexico, while the number of U.S. tourists to Mexico has seen a sharp fall.” (Source:

Damage to the Mexican tourism industry, greater economy, and spirit continues despite the virus now being viewed as far less severe than expected and under control. In May the impact of the crisis to the Mexican economy was expected to be US$ 2.2 billion. It was predicted that if the virus lasted eight weeks, ie. until today’s date, the impact was estimated by the Mexican Ministry of Finance to be -0.8% decline in GDP. This being in a year when the central bank is already expecting GDP to drop almost 5% as a result of the global economic downturn. Unprecedented action is now being taken by the government and private sector to communicate ‘open for business’. Heavily promoted, heavily discounted package offers support confident, highly compelling invitation to travellers. Now is the time to come and enjoy Mexico. Please.

The H1N1 virus continues to spread. As of moments ago (literally) the WHO declared a raising of the level of the virus to LEVEL 6 – pandemic – the highest. The virus has spread to over 70 countries across the globe, with over 28,000 reported cases. While the vast majority of those diagnosed with H1N1 recover swiftly (and often without medication) and a dramatically reduced rate of transmission is being seen compared to original predictions (due to seasonality stunting the spread), the concern remains. Airports continue to conduct fever-checks on arriving passengers, passengers undertake their journeys with face masks in place, and immigration cards are now accompanied by Department of Health forms tracking traveler movements. The WHO, continuing to monitor the spread of the virus and recommending no restrictions in travel, may feel thankful for its relative weakness, but are realistically cautious of its ability to gain in strength.

The red-dotted H1N1 maps have cooled. Other news issues have heated up.

Still, there has been active questioning regarding whether or not the global community – from health practitioners to pharmaceutical companies to travel & tourism professionals over-reacted to the H1N1 outbreak. Was the alarm bell sounded too loudly? Was the scale of the impact of the virus hypothesised too aggressively? Was there reason for global panic?

To look backwards, to debate the WHAT and the HOW, the WHO (no pun intended) and the WHEN, and challenge the WHY and the WHERE, is in fact academic. The global community, with its best minds and intentions, responded as was deemed necessary.

The real question is: What did we learn to keep us even safer and more secure in the future? And even more resilient as a tourism community, globally?

The identification and spread of the H1N1 virus has challenged us as a global Travel & Tourism community to come together to find a global crisis management attitude and response to address a global industry issue. We are a world on the move – borders and boundaries have faded where both travellers, and viruses, are concerned. All it takes is one flight, one cough, one touch, one headline and the virus, in fearful thought and in real form, has spread.

Which means we, as a global industry need to ensure that our recent learning is not wasted. There will be another crisis. There will be another scare. There will be another dramatic threat to the sector as people cancel plans and delete certain destinations from their ‘must visit’ lists.

To prepare for these future situations, now is the time to work together to determine, if and when it happens,:
• What do we need to do?
• Who needs to take the lead?
• How do followers need to respond?
• What messages do we need to put out during the crisis?
• And how do we rebound afterwards?

So importantly one of the greatest lessons from the recent H1N1 virus is the fact that ‘we’ no longer refers to the people of a destination. Or even a region. The ‘we’ is now global.

The H1N1 virus was, and continues to be, a critical test of the global Travel & Tourism community. As expressed by the UNWTO during the recent H1N1 crisis:

In view of the current developments relating to ‘swine influenza’, UNWTO recommends that States review their pandemic preparedness plans for travel and tourism. UNWTO’s previously organized simulation exercises have shown the importance of properly integrating travel and tourism within these plans to mitigate the impact of health emergencies especially in their international dimension. It is also recommended that the tourism private sector reviews their pandemic preparations and verifies the links with the respective state authorities.”

Be it natural disasters, political, social or medical crisis, the response of the destination, and the wider global community, plays an important part in managing the impact of the crisis on the destination:
• as a Brand,
• as an economy,
• as a society, and
• as a member of the global tourism community.

Our focus needs to be on the holistic health of our industry, ensuring each muscle of the global Travel & Tourism sector – our associations, our partnerships, our cooperation and collaborations, our policies, our infrastructure, our invitation, our experience delivery, our stakeholder community, our government leadership, our private sector partners, our investors, our local communities, our environment and our travellers – are able to strengthen through through times of challenge. Strengthen in body, mind and spirit.

At an individual destination level proactive planning for crisis is vital to the ability of the destination to recover in all key metrics, including:
1) image,
2) arrivals,
3) revenues,
4) investment attraction, and
5) sustainable competitiveness.

At the centre of destination recovery is communication – the ability to manage messaging during and after a crisis. A comprehensive Brand-based COMMUNICATIONS STRATEGY is required for the Tourism destination as a part of the greater long-term TOURISM GROWTH AND DEVELOPMENT STRATEGY.

But it doesn’t end there.

The spreading of key MESSAGES during and following a crisis requires alignment of key MESSENGERS – partnerships with industry leaders, industry stakeholders from the private and public sector, and importantly the media. Communicating correct information and core messages when a destination is stunned by a sudden shock is a massive challenge. The establishment of communications networks and guidelines for disseminating accurate information around the destination is something which should always be a part of the destination’s mandate, in good times and those more challenging. The stronger the networks, the wider and more acurately messages will be carried across the industry, destination and world.

In the case of the latter the importance of strong, informed and actively engaged partnerships with the media cannot be overemphasised. Global media sets the tone of global communications – the key source of information for travellers when something has gone wrong…and when things are right again, ready for the return of visitors. It is in the interest of all destinations to build relationships with the world most trusted news networks such as CNN. It is these Messengers with their massive audience reach who will be feeding updates to people around the world wanting to be the first to know, and to know the news is trustworthy. Importantly, it is also these global news networks who become the fuel for destination recovery as it is their news wires carry the invitation to the world to come visit – the destination is back in business.

Prevention. Response, Recovery. Growth. Together.

Copyright: ANITA MENDIRATTA / CACHET Consulting 2009