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MERS outbreak not yet affecting Phl-SoKor tourism

June 11, 2015 SEOUL – The outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome-

SEOUL – The outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome-Corona Virus (MERS-CoV) in South Korea is not causing any significant impact on the tourism industries of the Philippines and Korea – at least not yet.

Two weeks since the outbreak started on May 20, the Philippine embassy here relayed to Tourism Secretary Ramon Jimenez Jr. that “there has been no major cancellations” of travel plans by Koreans to the Philippines.

“However, there are also some agencies complaining that more and more Koreans are canceling travel plans abroad because they fear they could contract MERS-CoV on planes and airports,” said Maricon Ebron, the embassy’s tourism director and attaché, in the memo dated June 9.

Ebron said her assessment is based on interviews with travel agencies, which also agreed that while MERS-CoV’s impact on tourism has so far been muted, “if it continues... it will definitely prompt more people to refrain from traveling.”

Ebron also noted that travel agencies and airlines flying to South Korea are “concerned that MERS-CoV might reduce travel demand during the summer holiday season.”

According to the Department of Tourism, South Korea is the top source of visitors of the Philippines from January to March. A total of 361,480 Koreans traveled to the country during the period, up 20.4 percent from last year.

South Korean travelers also accounted for a little more than a quarter of total visitors as of March. By spending, South Koreans are the second top source of tourism receipts, next only to the United States, with total amount of P3.34 billion.

But as of Wednesday morning, the Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare has recorded nine deaths as a result of MERS-CoV complications, with 108 people under observation. The number of those quarantined also rose to 3,439 from 1,800 three days ago.

First Secretary and Consul Roderico Atienza said there are no special procedures being required for South Korean travelers to the Philippines because of MERS-CoV.

“The Korean government is doing all it can (to contain the virus). Unless you’re symptomatic, you have every right to travel,” Atienza told The STAR .

For Filipino travelers to Korea, Atienza said the embassy has not received any reports of cancellations, although he noted that travelers “won’t report to us even if they did.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) had not recommended a travel ban against South Korea, where tourism accounts for roughly five percent of the economy, according to the Organization of Economic and Development Cooperation.

But the embassy, through its Facebook page, has reminded Filipinos in Korea to take precautionary measures to prevent MERS-CoV from spreading.

Among the measures suggested are constant hand washing, boosting immune system through a balanced diet and exercise, as well as wearing of masks in public places.

Independence Day celebrations in Korea postponed

The embassy has “postponed indefinitely” the Philippine Independence Day celebrations slated for June 14 in Ansan, Korea because of the MERS-CoV outbreak.

But the embassy will still host tomorrow the National Day Reception to commemorate the anniversary of the proclamation of Philippine Independence, according to Department of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Charles Jose.

Phl heightens screening of tourists

Meanwhile, quarantine officials at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport are closely watching arriving foreign passengers as the WHO called on states to surveillance for acute respiratory infections and to carefully review any unusual patterns.

The Department of Health (DOH) has also heightened its screening efforts at all ports of entry, including Bacolod City and the rest of Negros Occidental which experienced an influx of South Korean tourists. 

Bureau of Immigration records showed that more than 1,200 South Koreans are in Bacolod City and the rest of Negros Occidental.

DOH Asec. Gerardo Bayugo, who was in Bacolod on Tuesday, said the department’s medical facilities have been prepared to take care of patients with MERS-CoV because South Koreans are not yet prevented from coming to the Philippines.

The WHO reminded the public that infection prevention and control measures are critical to prevent the possible spread of MERS-CoV in health care facilities.

The  WHO also noted that it is not always possible to identify patients with MERS-CoV early because like other respiratory infections, the early symptoms of MERS-CoV are non-specific. For this reason, health workers should always apply standard precautions consistently with all patients, regardless of their diagnosis. – With Pia Lee-Brago, Rudy Santos, Danny Dangcalan


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