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Mon 21 Sep 2009 04:00 AM

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Hospitality industry

United against swine flu Following 2187 cases of swine flu across 18 Arab countries and seven reported deaths, including one at a hotel in Saudi Arabia, Middle Eastern governing bodies have held a series of meetings with hotels to address the growing threat.

Hospitality industry

United against swine flu Following 2187 cases of swine flu across 18 Arab countries and seven reported deaths, including one at a hotel in Saudi Arabia, Middle Eastern governing bodies have held a series of meetings with hotels to address the growing threat.

Hoteliers have responded to the proactive approach to the prevention of swine flu  being taken by government bodies, acknowledging that it is a serious matter that could have a major impact on the  hotel industry.

The changing attitude of hoteliers was reflected by the huge turnout at the first presentation to raise awareness of the H1N1 virus (swine flu) threat organised by Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM) and Dubai Health Authority last month.

More than 400 hoteliers attended the event and, as a result, DTCM is already planning to launch a second presentation to increase awareness.

Hilton Dubai Creek general manager Mike Nalborezyk, who attended the presentation, said: "We have to take the matter seriously. We found the presentation by DTCM very useful. They're taking a pragmatic approach rather than a sensational one and that approach is definitely the way forward".

He added that it was important for hotels to prepare by taking correct and sensible steps and the number one priority was the health of guests and team members.

Preparing for the worst, Hilton Dubai Creek has appointed a team of staff focused on controlling the risk of the pandemic and ensuring everyone is well-informed, but Nalborezyk said "we can only respond as the virus unfolds and take the necessary measures".

Growing death toll

Dubai Health Authority revealed there had been 2187 confirmed cases of the H1N1 virus across 18 Arab countries, including seven reported deaths to date on August 4 - this included one death in a hotel room in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Furthermore, international hotel brands, including Starwood Hotels & Resorts and Marriott International, blamed swine flu for a major decline in quarter two global results, with Starwood estimating a US $10 million negative impact on revenue.

Swine flu concerns, combined with the "difficult economic climate" were blamed for international comparable company-operated revPAR decline of -31.5% (22.1% using constant dollars) for Marriott's markets outside North America.

On a smaller scale, revenue loss and damage to brand image following a confirmed case at a particular hotel can be devastating. It was recently reported that the Shangri-La Hotel, Huhhot, China was quarantined by local authorities after a guest was diagnosed with the virus.

Middle Eastadvantage

In the Middle East's favour, the region has not been pinpointed as a high-risk area and government officials and health authorities believe raising awareness in the hospitality sector will help to keep it that way.

Days after the issue was addressed in Dubai, Saudi umrah tour operators and hotel owners in Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia, held an emergency meeting over the swine flu threat, which they anticipated would lead to a SR 1billion ($266 million) loss during the Ramadan season due to quota limits on the number of pilgrims to the Kingdom.

A pro-active approach from hotels is the order of the day. Desert Islands Resort & Spa general manager Andre Erasmus said he had launched an awareness and prevention programme, which involved incorporating more sanitary equipment, offering masks for staff and guests to wear and briefing staff on precautionary steps and symptoms to look out for.

"We've been very proactive in communicating the threat and we've had some correspondence through Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA)," said Erasmus, adding that at the same time he was wary not to "scare people off".

"There have not been a lot of questions regarding swine flu from guests; generally their perception is that the UAE is still not a high-risk area," he added.

And at Renaissance Dubai Hotel, housekeeping manager Suvarna Bahadarpurkar said that it was vital to err on the side of caution.

"We are being very cautious. People in the hotel have travelled on planes from different parts of the world and you need to make sure that when room attendants clean rooms, they ensure they are surgically clean," said Bahadarpurkar.

The Renaissance Dubai Hotel was striving to communicate this message to raise awareness about the simple actions that can be taken, such as cleaning door handles and communal areas regularly with sanitisers and swapping usual cleaning products for anti-viral substances. "We've also incorporated pandemic awareness and loss prevention tactics into training programmes," added Bahadarpurkar.

Other hotels have adopted a more laid-back approach to dealing with the threat, however.

"We haven't had any cause for concern. We've kept a strict eye on people and from an internal point of view we're looking after staff members," said Premier Inn managing director Darroch Crawford.

Yet he acknowledged that hotels could not ignore the growing risk and it may be appropriate to take further preventative actions in the near future.

Necessary actions

But what actions should hotels take? The first outlined by Dubai Health Authority is to ensure staff recognise the symptoms of swine flu. These are similar to those witnessed in cases of regular human flu such as a runny nose, sore throat, coughing, fever, lethargy, loss of appetite, nausea and diarrhoea.

Warning signs can also include breathing difficulties or shortness of breath, pressure-like pain in the chest or abdomen area, sudden dizziness or confusion and severe or persistent vomiting.

If a guest develops symptoms, Dubai Health Authority advised they should be referred to emergency medical care.

Those with a chronic disease or a low immune system, alongside the obese, pregnant women, children aged under five and adults aged 65 years plus, are at a higher risk of contracting the disease.

However, while swine flu can lead to fatalities, Dubai Health Authority advised that most reported cases recover fully without requiring medical attention or anti-viral medication and communicated that one of the most important factors in the fight against swine flu is ‘preparedness' among the region's hotels.

Swine flu prevention strategies in the UAE1. Creation of committees to manage the threat of swine flu, including:

• National committee chaired by the minister of health

• Technical committee at central government level

• Management committee at Dubai Health Authority, Abu Dhabi Health Authority and the Ministry of Health at individual emirate's level

2. Increased public awareness about flu pandemic - 30,000 swine flu information leaflets to be distributed to organisations and companies in the UAE and among plane passengers travelling to the region

3. TV and radio programmes lining up medical experts to educate the general public about the virus and preventive measures that can be taken

4. Health education seminars provided for hospitality bodies and health education champions to be stationed in public areas, such as malls

5. Detection of the infected persons at the country entry points; involves the installation of 38 thermal detectors at UAE airports and entry points at a cost of AED 7.5 million (US $2 million)

6. Medical preparedness - UAE has a stock of five million Tamiflu capsules

7. Swine flu vaccine to arrive in the UAE in September

8. Constant contact to the World Health Organisation (WHO) hotline and collaboration with other regional and international health organisations

9. Developing health plans, precautions and preventive procedures to combat swine flu

10. Following and responding to world developments in relation to the virus

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