Governments and travel companies are scrambling to alter travel policies to and from Mexico as the swine flu outbreak gets closer to being tagged a pandemic.
Mexican airport operator Grupo Aeroportuario del Sureste SA de CV said Wednesday passenger traffic has declined since the outbreak of swine flu but it was too early to determine the financial effect on the company.
Asur, which operates Cancun Airport and eight others in southeast Mexico, did not give figures for the traffic downturn.
“Between April 26 and April 28, 2009, there has been a decline in the passenger traffic levels from those observed before the Mexican Secretary of Health confirmed the presence of Swine Flu,” the airport company said in a statement. Asur said it couldn’t predict how long it will take to return to normal conditions.
The swine flu outbreak has officials in North America and around the world on their toes as they attempt to stem the disease’s transfer and impact. Airports, airlines and agencies are monitoring the traveling public for signs and symptoms.
The disease is suspected of killing more than 150 people in Mexico and sickening thousands. There are nearly 100 confirmed cases in the U.S., according to the World Health Organization.
Governments take action
The State Department on late Monday warned U.S. citizens to avoid nonessential travel to Mexico and those who live in Mexico to avoid hospitals or clinics there unless they have a medical emergency.
Cuba amended its blank 48-hour travel ban to and from Mexico on Wednesday. Fearing the disease, Cuba suspended all regular and charter flights from Mexico to the island but still allowing airlines to return travelers to Mexico.
A statement published in state newspapers said that effective midnight Wednesday, flights from Cuba to Mexico would be grounded. After that, airlines can fly presumably empty planes to the island and pickup Mexico travels. The statement says the restrictions will remain until “the causes that have prompted these decisions cease.”
There have been no reported cases of swine flu in Cuba but the government has ordered medical personnel and civil defense authorities to be on alert.
France will ask the European Union to suspend flights to Mexico as a result of spreading swine flu, its health minister said Wednesday. The country says flights from Mexico can continue.
Health Minister Roselyne Bachelot spoke after a special meeting of top French government ministers and health officials that had been convened by President Nicolas Sarkozy.
She said the flight request would come at a meeting Thursday in Luxembourg of European health ministers.
France wants flights from Mexico to be maintained so French citizens residing in Mexico can return to France if they want, government spokesman Luc Chatel said.
Argentina announced a five-day ban on flights arriving from Mexico.
Cabinet Chief Sergio Massa said Tuesday night in a televised news conference the measure is in effect until Sunday at midnight to “transmit a sense of calm to Argentines.”
“It's not a measure meant to punish the Mexicans, but rather to strengthen to the utmost our safety measures to care for Argentines,” Massa said.
Airlines, cruise lines change plans
Air Canada announced an update to its Mexico flights. According to its Web site, the carrier “will suspend all operations to Cancun, Cozumel and Puerto Vallarta until June 1, 2009,” but will continue flying into Mexico City. The carrier will allow customers with booked plans to the affected regions to rebook with no change fees.
Most large North American carriers — including American, Continental, United, US Airways, Delta and Aeromexico — posted notices on their Web sites waiving change fees for travelers with scheduled flights to or from Mexico for the next several days.
Travelers should regularly check their airline's Web site for flight and rule changes.
Carnival Cruise Lines, Royal Caribbean Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line have suspended stops at Mexican ports over concerns about swine flu.
Carnival said on its Web site it has canceled all calls at Mexican ports through May 4, and in many cases will be able to substitute the canceled stop with an alternative port.
Royal Caribbean had said it was monitoring the situation but telling passengers not to worry because the outbreaks are inland, not in the Mexican coastal cities popular with cruise tourists. But later Tuesday the company said it was suspending port calls indefinitely in Mexico until more is known about the swine flu outbreak.
The move affects its Royal Caribbean International and Celebrity Cruises ships.
Norwegian is canceling Norwegian Pearl’s final two calls in Mexico this week after saying earlier in the day that it was monitoring the situation and asking passengers about their health before cruises start but keeping the trips.
Norwegian’s schedules do not include any other ports in Mexico until the end of September 2009, the company said.
Evan Hanna, of Stafford, Va., was already at sea and headed to Grand Cayman and Cozumel when he and other passengers got word their Carnival ship would skip Mexico.
“There was a lot of yelling at the ship’s officials,” Hanna wrote in an e-mail from the oceanliner. “Most passengers still wanted to go to Cozumel, and there were a lot that wanted to go back to the home port early.”
Keep yourself educated
Travelers heading to or from Mexico will need to keep up-to-date on the latest travel advisories and consider whether or not they want to change plans.
Specific travel advice related to swine flu is fluid and likely to change as the full impact of the disease becomes clear.
International SOS, a travel medical-assistance firm, has also created a very useful and easy-to-maneuver site specifically on this topic.
Dr. Myles Druckman, a disease and pandemic expert who works with International SOS, notes the risk of falling ill in Mexico is relatively low, but warns of delays for traveling from Mexico and other countries back to the U.S., especially if the situation intensifies.
For the time being, Druckman advises leisure travelers to have a plan in place before making trips to Mexico and to add items such as surgical masks, over-the-counter cold and flu medications and extra supplies of regular prescription medications to your first aid kit. “You would be kicking yourself if you said, ‘Heck, I’m going to go,’ and then things escalate and you’re stuck there.”
Msnbc.com contributor Harriet Baskas and The Associated Press contributed to this report.