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Travel companies begin to avoid Mexico as swine flu alert increased

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Fears of swine flu in Mexico sent shockwaves through the tourism industry as Canadian travel companies and airlines began to pull the popular holiday destination from the itineraries of their planes and ships.

Reacting to the World Health Organization's decision to raise its the level of the swine flu alert to Phase 4, the airlines and tour operators began Tuesday to redirect passengers away from Mexican cities, cancelling flights and turning ships en route to Mexican harbours.

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Sean Shannon, managing director of Expedia.ca, said the online travel agency has been flooded with travellers looking for information and changing their bookings.

Shannon recommended travellers check with their tour operator or airline to find out what alternatives they may have before calling to change their reservations because the options and policies can vary from company to company.

"A lot of it comes back to who are they booked with and what are the policies that have been put together by any given airline or tour operator," he said.

Air Canada (TSX:AC.B) and Air Canada Vacations will suspend all operations to Cancun, Cozumel and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, until June 1. However, the airline said it will maintain its flights to Mexico City.

WestJet (TSX:WJA) and WestJet Vacations said it would stop service to Cancun, Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan, and Puerto Vallarta effective May 4 with service to Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta to resume on June 20.

Service to Cancun, a seasonal destination for WestJet, would return in the fall schedule.

Montreal-based Transat AT, said it was bringing its customers and employees in Mexico back to Canada and postponing any further flights to the country until at least June 1.

"Transat is following the situation closely and could take additional measures depending on decisions that will be made by the public health authorities and governments concerned," the company said in a release.

"Similarly, the aforementioned measures could be changed as the situation evolves."

Toronto-based Sunwing Vacations also put on hold all departures for Mexico until May 29, offering to rebook clients to other destinations or cancel their holiday and receive a credit for a future Sunwing holiday later this year.

Sunquest cancelled all of its tours to Mexico until June 4, offering customers the chance to change their bookings to any other Sunquest destination for travel up to Oct. 31.

In a similar move, Miami-based Carnival Cruise Lines suspended stops at Mexican ports for three ships scheduled to visit the country Tuesday, saying it hasn't yet announced a decision on future stops there.

Meanwhile, the company and competitors Royal Caribbean International and Norwegian Cruise Lines tried to allay guest fears by emphasizing how thoroughly the ships are cleaned.

Norwegian's Pearl is on a special voyage with Mexico stops. The company says it is monitoring the situation and asking passengers about their health before cruises start.

Royal Caribbean says it's monitoring the situation but telling passengers not to worry because the outbreaks are inland, not in the Mexican coastal cities popular with cruise tourists.

And Cuba on Tuesday became the first country to halt air travel with Mexico, where more than 150 deaths are believed to have been caused by swine flu.

The Cuban government suspended flights to and from Mexico for 48 hours, adding it may also take further steps to restrict Mexico travel if necessary. Cuba has no reported cases of the flu.

Canadian authorities have advised against travel to Mexico until further notice, along with a number of other countries.

Some travellers in the United States -said they are sticking with planned trips to Mexico despite the scare, but others are postponing vacations or switching to the Caribbean or sunny beaches elsewhere.

Kevin Stickle of Ferndale, Wash., departed Tuesday from Seattle with his wife for a week-long beach vacation in Ixtapa despite the U.S. Centers for Disease Control's recommendation to avoid non-essential travel to Mexico.

"The combination of fabulous weather, great beaches and food, another culture and some common sense far outweighs any fear or hysteria headlines that might tempt me to stay home," said Stickle.

Paul Motter, editor of Cruisemates.com, said: "I predict this could be a boon for Alaska cruises, where prices are still cheap."

Experts say the progression of the outbreak will determine its overall impact on leisure travel.

If the outbreak is contained, "the panic will subside very quickly and people will forget about it," said Abraham Pizam, dean of the Rosen College of Hospitality Management at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. If the outbreak gets worse but is concentrated in Mexico, Pizam said the country will lose tourism the way Hong Kong did after the 2003 SARS outbreak, where "travel came to a standstill almost overnight."

But if swine flu keeps spreading globally, Pizam said "people will be afraid to go any place, which is similar to what happened after 9-11. It's already in Mexico, New Zealand, Israel, Scotland and New York."

(With files from The Associated Press)

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