Swine flu has created a "perfect storm" for an Australian tourism industry already reeling from the global recession and facing its worst downturn in 20 years, experts said Tuesday.
Analysts fear the swine flu will be more devastating to tourism than the SARS crisis, when many international visitors shunned Australia because of the long flights needed to reach Down Under.
They said tens of thousands of jobs could be at risk in the tourism sector, which generates 24 billion dollars (17.3 billion US) a year from international visitors, making it Australia's third-largest export earner.
"It is indeed a perfect storm," said Tourism and Transport Forum executive director Olivia Wirth.
"It's too early to tell the full impact of swine flu but if it's anything like the SARS virus there are very, very tough times ahead.
"Australia's vulnerable because we're a long-haul destination and anything that acts as a barrier to people getting on a plane and coming here is going to hurt us."
Since the swine flu crisis erupted this week shares in Australian airlines Qantas and Virgin Blue have dropped on investor expectations it will impact on the carriers, which have already slashed jobs and flights due to the recession.
Wirth's Tourism and Transport Forum on Tuesday released a report from economist Geoff Carmody that predicted the recession could cost 29,000 jobs in the industry.
Deutsche Bank analyst Cameron McDonald said psychological factors played a major role in how such crises hit travel and tourism.
"We've had the experience of SARS, and we saw that it's not necessarily just people falling sick, because fear takes over too," he told Melbourne's Age newspaper.
Tourism Australia (TA) official forecasts released in December predicted 2009 would see the industry's worst downturn in 20 years, with international visitor numbers down almost four percent.
"There is no doubt that tourism operators who are heavily reliant on international tourism are in for a tough time in 2009, particularly in the first half of the year," TA forecaster Bernard Salt said at the time.
Wirth said those predictions already appeared optimistic, with some airlines tipping international arrivals to plunge more than 10 percent for the year.
"That's before swine flu has even been factored in," she said.
There were similar fears in New Zealand, where authorities believe nine people are likely to have swine flu and a further 56 are undergoing tests.
Tourism New Zealand chief executive George Hickton said the outbreak was the last thing the industry needed given the already tough conditions but it was still unclear what effect the swine flu would have on tourism.
"It really is far too early to tell," he told the New Zealand Herald.
Recent figures showed international visitor arrivals to New Zealand slumped 9.7 percent in March.
However, Australian Tourism Export Council managing director said it was not all doom and gloom.
"I've yet to have one member report a cancellation (due to swine flu)," he said.
"We've become very adept at responding to these crises in recent years, we're battle-hardened and better prepared for something like this than we ever have been."