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Manatee travel agents brace for flu fears

MANATEE — As world leaders warn of the spread of swine flu, local travel agents are keeping an eye on how fear over the disease may affect their customers’ travel habits.

“I think it will be affecting us,” said Debbie Crissman, travel agent for Fantasy Travel on Cortez Road.

Fantasy books customers on a regular basis on cruises to Mexico, and Crissman said cruise companies operating in Tampa have put travel agents on notice that events surrounding the flu are being monitored.

As the death toll in Mexico rose to 159, and the U.S. State Department advised Americans to defer all nonessential travel there, Crissman said agents in her office are taking a wait-and-see approach to the business day.

“There really hasn’t been a panic with our customers because most of them have cruised before and know the ships would never be taken in harm’s way,” said Crissman. “But with the U.S. asking for non-essential travel to Mexico be suspended, cruise lines are definitely watching the situation closely.”

With media reports swirling on the flu, Jim Deemer, travel agent at Palmetto Travel Inc., expected to get some calls from customers. But he has received none.

“I have a group headed to Mexico Friday and haven’t heard from anyone,” he said.

Meanwhile, other tourism hubs in Florida have been getting a different reaction from customers.

By midday Monday, agents at MK Tours in Miami had handled 40 calls from anxious travelers bound for Mexico, said company president Amelia Calchadora. Most of the people delayed trips or switched to beach destinations elsewhere in the Caribbean, she said.

At Travel Network of Kendall, president Elsa Cristobal said she fielded calls from three families that had requested a vacation and four-day cruise later this summer.

“All called today and said they did not want Mexican ports on their trips,” she said.

Several major cruise lines — including Carnival and Royal Caribbean — announced Monday that they will stick with itineraries that include Mexican ports. No cases of the swine flu have been reported on cruise ships.

— The Miami Herald contributed to this report.

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