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Friday, January 20, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Travel updates

Bird flu isn't slowing Lunar New Year travel

Asia

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 the Lunar New Year, which is celebrated this year on Jan. 29.

"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.

Christmas, New Year and the Lunar New Year (also called Chinese New Year) 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 bird-flu virus had killed almost 80 people in east Asia as of last week and a handful in eastern Turkey, with most cases traced to direct 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.

Mexico, U.S., Canada

U.S. to issue special ID for frequent border crossers

U.S. officials will start issuing a special ID card later this year allowing frequent American travelers to Mexico and Canada to continue crossing the border without a passport.

Citing security concerns, the government said last spring that as of 2008, all travelers would be required to show passports when they re-enter the country from Mexico and Canada. But business and travel groups and residents of border communities objected, saying the plan could snarl traffic and discourage casual travel.

Officials said last week the card will be about the size of a credit card, carry a picture of the holder and cost roughly $50, about half the price of a passport. It will be equipped with radio-frequency identification, allowing it to be read from several yards away at border crossings.

To obtain the card, officials said that citizens will be required to provide the same kind of documentation that is now used to obtain a passport.

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Some industry officials said they remained concerned that even with the new approach, travel could be slowed and some casual tourism discouraged. Scotty Greenwood, executive director of the Canadian American Business Council, said her group was concerned about how the program would be implemented. She suggested that a pilot program be launched to make sure the system works before it is put in place.

Air travel

U.S. airlines cut back even further on free drinks

One of the most cherished traditions of international air travel — free in-flight cocktails — is coming to an end on U.S. airlines

Starting Feb. 1, Northwest Airlines — the last remaining U.S. carrier to serve free booze in international coach class — will phase in a $5-per-drink fee on Asian-Pacific flights. (Drinks will still be free on flights to Europe and other international routes.) Last year, United Airlines started charging $5 per alcoholic beverage in international economy.

The changes follow legal and lobbying pressure on airlines to cut down on "air rage" — in-flight misbehavior most frequently attributed to drunkenness. The cuts are also come amid the difficult economic times for U.S. carriers.

High fuel costs and increased competition from discounters have pushed fares to record lows and have helped force many airlines into bankruptcy protection. U.S. airlines have already have sliced many in-flight amenities such as magazines, free meals and pillows and have been charging for booze for years on domestic flights in coach. On many international carriers, however, even short hops in-country come with a complimentary nip of something or other.

Brazil

Rio fights outbreak of dengue fever

An outbreak of dengue fever in Brazil's tourist draw of Rio de Janeiro has prompted the authorities to step up prevention measures, fearing a repeat of a 2002 epidemic that killed more than 100 people.

Dengue, a viral infection, is transmitted by certain mosquitoes and causes severe body pain, fever and headaches. One of the affected neighborhoods is the upscale, oceanside Barra da Tijuca. Barra and neighboring Jacarepagua accounted for over 250 dengue cases out of 328 registered in Rio last month, and there are similar rates this month.

Rio is preparing to receive hundreds of thousands of tourists for its famed annual Carnival in February.

Seattle Times staff and news services

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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