updated 1/17/2006 4:08:10 PM ET 2006-01-17T21:08:10

Despite fresh bird flu outbreaks among poultry and new human deaths, tourists are traveling en masse across Asia during the region's peak travel season ahead of Chinese New Year.

"According to the figures from hotels, they've never known such a high occupancy rate," said Olivier Colomes, general director of Exotissimo Travel Group in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, the country hardest-hit by avian influenza. "We were really scared about this because everybody was talking about the bird flu as if it would happen tomorrow, but so far nothing has happened."

The Christmas, New Year and Lunar New Year holidays are when most international travelers visit Asia, and it's the busiest season for regional travel. Since the H5N1 strain of bird flu emerged in late 2003, winter has also been the deadliest time for the disease.

But unlike SARS in early 2003, which spread rapidly via air travel and killed nearly 800 people worldwide, bird flu has not scared visitors away. Another major difference is that the World Health Organization has not issued travel advisories warning people to avoid all nonessential trips to affected parts of Asia, as it did during SARS.

The SARS scare decimated the region's tourism industry, cutting annual international arrivals by more than 15 million and costing the region $11 billion, according to the Pacific Asia Travel Association in Bangkok, Thailand.

"I think perhaps the one only benefit of SARS is that it left people a lot more prepared," said Sally de Souza, spokeswoman for Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group in Hong Kong. "We have all these continuity plans which we can update and adapt and amend accordingly, and I think everybody just feels a little bit better prepared. SARS was such a sudden thing, really."

The bird flu virus has killed at least 76 people in eastern Asia and Turkey, but it remains hard for humans to catch with most cases traced to contact with sick birds. Experts fear, however, that the virus could mutate into another form that spreads easily from person to person, possibly sparking a global pandemic that kills millions worldwide.

China has recently reported new poultry outbreaks, while Indonesia confirmed two new human deaths last month. Turkish health officials recently confirmed 15 people were infected with bird flu, including two children who died.

Ken Scott, director of communications for Pacific Asia Travel Association, which has more than 800 members in Asia, said the media frenzy that surrounded bird flu outbreaks at European poultry farms last fall did not affect travel in Asia as feared.

"I think by and large, people understand that bird flu is an ailment that affects poultry and it is almost impossible for humans to get it," he said. "You've got to be in direct contact with bird feces and feathers and so on, and in a farming and wet market situation, and that doesn't apply to 99.9 percent of tourists."

Scott said the Asian tourism sector did well over Christmas and New Year and is expected to remain strong through the Lunar New Year on Jan. 29. He said the few bird flu-related cancelations he's heard about have occurred in Vietnam and Hong Kong, mostly involving meetings and conventions.

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The airline industry is also expecting brisk business during its peak regional travel period, with some carriers adding flights to accommodate increased traffic, said Usha Veeriah, executive assistant to the director general at the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

But airlines and large hotel chains have been responsive to bird flu outbreaks, formulating pandemic plans and putting preventive measures in place - in some cases to simply offer guests and passengers extra reassurance.

Many upscale restaurants in Vietnam removed poultry from their menus, while food handlers at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Jakarta donned respiratory masks in the fall when Indonesia was experiencing a spate of outbreaks and human deaths.

In addition, United Airlines added masks to its flights in 2004, and Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts issued guidelines that range from requiring employees with flu-like symptoms to see a doctor before returning to work to ensuring all eggs on the breakfast buffet are well-done.

"It's a question of acting responsibly," de Souza said. "It's a reassurance ... that we recognize that there is an issue and that we're doing what we can."

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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