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Experts expected the worst for Las Vegas during 2003 SARS outbreak

When the SARS virus outbreak spread from China throughout the world in 2003, Las Vegas was in a panic.

How would this mysterious severe acute respiratory syndrome affect the local economy?

As it turned out, the effects of SARS were minimal except for one major technology convention. Local tourism experts have no data on the final impact on tourism by SARS and visitation could have been affected by other events, including lingering effects of the 9/11 attacks and the U.S. war against Iraq that broke out in March 2003.

But the city was prepared for the worst as the outbreak spread and affected tourism in Hong Kong, Macao and Toronto, where the disease arrived as a result of a traveler from Hong Kong.

Two reports issued after the outbreak, one focusing on Las Vegas, the other on Nevada and the United States, offered predictions of dire consequences if SARS were to reach pandemic stages.

The report by the Center for Business and Economic Research at UNLV, said a pandemic would cost the local economy 39,000 jobs and $2.3 billion. It said decreased demand for hotel rooms, meals, transportation and entertainment would ripple through the economy as a result of a shortage of tourists. Subsequent layoffs, the report said, would reverberate even further in the form of less local spending, unpaid bills and lower tax revenue.

Keith Schwer, a UNLV professor who worked on the report, said the SARS outbreak would have twice the economic impact of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the United States — an event he survived, as he was at the World Trade Center when airliners slammed into the two skyscrapers.

“That was a relatively short-lived event,” Schwer said “But travel and tourism really didn’t recover until 2003. People stop coming. And when they stop coming, then you are going to lay people off.”

The second report by the Trust For America’s Health, published in March and focused on Nevada and the United States as a whole, said Nevada would stand to lose more than any other state in a pandemic.

The state’s dependence on tourism would cost it more than 8 percent of its economy in a pandemic, the report said. That translates to a loss of $9 billion from Nevada’s gross domestic product, almost as much money as the combined win of every casino in Clark County in 2002.

The largest Las Vegas event believed to have been affected by SARS was the April 2003 NetWorld + Interop computer convention that normally attracted 40,000 people, but had only 30,000 registered.

Convention officials said the SARS outbreak was one of several reasons people stayed away from the show. About 2,200 international delegates from Asia attended the 2002 show, but only 250 signed up in 2003.

Organizers with Key3Media Group, the show’s producer, said there were still jitters over potential terrorist acts, as the U.S. had gone to war with Iraq in March of that year.

Contact Richard N. Velotta at rvelotta@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3893. Follow @RickVelotta on Twitter.

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