Younger generations of readers may not remember the devastating impact of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), a terrible disease that began in Guangzhou’s live exotic food markets in late 2002, and killed 774 people worldwide by the middle of 2003. It spread fastest via Hong Kong and Macau, because they had the biggest tourism industries and largest network of international flights. The entire GBA saw its economy hammered for more than six months and it came just as the region’s property markets were entering a downturn.
Health authorities are taking no chances again, since the recent announcement in Wuhan of an outbreak that seems similar to SARS, mostly causing symptoms of pneumonia. Macau has put its casinos on alert and set up screening stations at the borders, even though it has only had five cases reported, and four were discharged from local hospitals. Hong Kong has reported 17 cases so far and has set up screening stations at the border points.
It is too early to jump to conclusions, but given the memories of the last outbreak, it seems likely that any reports of infections in the region will have a dampening effect on travel numbers, just as the biggest festival of the year – Chinese New Year – is soon to get under way. Hong Kong is already reeling from the loss of mainland tourists due to the protests; further falls in visitors could obviously put many in the industry out of business. Macau’s casinos, which welcomed more mainland tourists than Hong Kong did in December, will obviously be praying this is not going to be a repeat of Chinese New Year in 2003.