Biden irks the travel industry

For the second time in three months, the travel industry is taking umbrage at comments from the administration of President Barack Obama.

This time the comment was by Vice President Joe Biden.

During an appearance on the "Today" show, Biden urged people to protect themselves from a spreading flu virus by avoiding certain types of travel.

"I would tell members of my family, and I have, I wouldn't go anywhere in confined places now. It's not that it's going to Mexico, it's you're in a confined aircraft. When one person sneezes it goes all the way through the aircraft," Biden said.

He later backed off the remarks. A White House spokesman said Biden meant to say his remarks only applied to people who feel sick.

But the comment drew quick responses from airlines and travel industry officials who said the federal Centers for Disease Control has not recommended travel avoidance except for travel to Mexico, which is the epicenter of the H1N1 flu outbreak.

"Vice President Biden's remarks were in direct contradiction to President Obama's and Health and Human Services Secretary (Kathleen) Sebelius' measured statements that were careful, reassuring and properly cautious," said Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev.

Ensign has reason to be concerned.

Nevada's economy is largely based on attracting more than 35 million people annually to Las Vegas.

Worries about H1N1, also called swine flu, have already prompted recommendations to curb travel to Mexico.

And on Thursday one group canceled a Dallas business event, citing swine flu worries.

The convention industry magazine Tradeshow Week reported the Food Marketing Institute canceled an event that would have sent about 3,500 people to Dallas May 6-8.

An official for the group said members are preoccupied with dealing with swine flu concerns in their own communities. One of the concerns that food industry officials are trying to alleviate is the false notion that swine flu is spread by eating pork.

"At this time, our industry's leaders must be in their communities to be actively engaged in a time of potential crisis," Food Marketing Institute President and CEO Leslie Sarasin told Tradeshow Week.

U.S. Travel Association President and CEO Roger Dow didn't criticize Biden, but did say elected officials should stay away from language that cultivates panic.

"Elected officials must strike a delicate balance of accurately and adequately informing citizens of health concerns without unduly discouraging travel and other important activity," Dow said in a statement. "According to President Obama, swine flu is a cause for concern, but not panic."

Democratic lawmakers from Nevada shook their heads at Biden's gaffe and questioned whether it could pose another obstacle to Las Vegas trying to pull itself out of the recession.

But they also reacted carefully since it is not yet known how the outbreak will end up impacting the state. They did not want to be perceived as local boosters insensitive about health implications for potential visitors.

The outbreak is being monitored through "hourly" calls to the Centers for Disease Control and authorities in Southern Nevada, said Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev. "We are staying on top of this whole thing," she said.

"I don't know why (Biden) would take that position when the president has been much more measured on the precautions you need to take," Titus said. "Anytime you say don't get on a plane, that is going to impact travel. It is just another unfortunate comment."

From a tourism standpoint, Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., said the vice president's comments about staying off planes "are not helpful."

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., also addressed travel comments related to the flu outbreak without referring to the vice president by name.

"(Health) experts have not advised people to cancel their travel plans; in fact, they are encouraging all of us to continue going about our business while following safe public health practices," Reid said.

Las Vegas and other travel destinations are particularly sensitive to remarks by government officials lately.

In February, Obama told an audience in Elkhart, Ind., that workers at bailout-taking banks shouldn't take trips to Las Vegas or other destinations "on the taxpayers' dime."

Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman and some resort executives said the remark suggested there aren't legitimate reasons to take a business trip to Las Vegas.

Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at or 702-477-3861.