Without SARS or terror

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan () - May 23, 2003 - 12:00am
COPENHAGEN —– This is as far from SARS and terrorism as I can get.

Before flying to Denmark my biggest worry was not catching a deadly virus or my Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) flight being hit by a shoulder-fired missile launched by some Islamist nut.

Instead I worried that I would be detained by health authorities upon arrival here for looking like a SARS suspect from China. Or by security agents for coming from a Southeast Asian country infiltrated by al-Qaeda.

My worst fears didn’t materialize. But my travel documents now include a "health passport" issued by the Department of Disease Control of Thailand, where I had a two-hour layover on my way to Denmark. The document attests that in the past two weeks I have not suffered from diarrhea, rashes, jaundice, "tender lumps" and related ailments.

At Bangkok international airport a phalanx of masked doctors and nurses greeted all arriving passengers, collecting questionnaires that we filled out on the flight from Manila. Green masks were given away by Thai authorities. I wore my N-95 mask from the Philippines.

Pre-departure in Manila wasn’t too bad. Probably because there are few travelers these days, and because the inspection was perfunctory, I breezed through the vehicle checkpoint. One click from what looked like a camera cum temperature scanner, plus two questions on whether I’ve had a fever or cough in recent days, and my health check was over.

For the first time in my life I am traveling with a mask in my carry-on, plus hand sanitizer and a pile of vitamins and pills to ward off sneezing, coughing and fever.
* * *
In this land of fairy tales and Legoland, it’s easy to forget SARS, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and Code Orange in the United States. Denmark offers the ultimate luxury in a world plagued by terror and pestilence: a break from the fast-paced life, an opportunity to stop and smell the flowers.

The Danes call it "hygge" – a word that invokes the slow life, coziness, intimate moments with family and friends. Think of the languid movement of an old windmill turning in the breeze. With the new generation of windmills, the rustic charm is lost, but efficiency has improved. Denmark has to be the world’s largest exporter of modern windmills. Made largely of the same light but durable fiberglass the Danes use to build boats, the windmills offer clean energy that’s slowly catching on in environment-conscious societies.

The country is not only SARS-free and eco-friendly, it also boasts of child-friendly attractions. These include a unique four-star hotel in Legoland that has shower fixtures, furniture, aisles and even room entrances specially designed for children.

Spring is a wonderful time to visit Denmark, although the long days can be disconcerting; yesterday the sun set at around 10. But the countryside is lovely, carpeted with yellow fields of rape from where you get rapeseed oil.

The Danes recommend exploring their country through thousands of kilometers of bicycle routes. Or at least biking to Odense, birthplace of Denmark’s most famous son, Hans Christian Andersen.
* * *
Denmark is preparing for a major celebration of the 200th birth anniversary of Andersen in 2005. So the Danes are treating visitors to uniquely Danish "hygge" treats. At the Falsled Kro (Falsled village inn) in Funen, where room rates range from the equivalent of P16,000 to P20,000 a night, dinner guests were treated Tuesday to a storytelling of Andersen’s "The Nightingale" by one of this country’s most famous actresses, Susse Wold.

At the Hans Christian Andersen Museum, in a house where Andersen was believed to have been born, visitors can make their own papercuts – an art in which the fairy tale writer excelled.

You leave this country with "H.C. Andersen" and the infinite possibilities of Lego blocks coming out of your ears. But then those aren’t bad reasons for a nation to gain international renown.

Filipinos may soon be hearing more about the Danish foundation named after Andersen. The Scandinavian Tourist Board is planning to tap the Andersen foundation to send Philippine street children or orphans to school. The fund has $30 million from the Danish government and an equal counterpart funding from the private sector.

Soren Leerskov, the board’s regional director for Asia, is also studying a new approach to marketing Denmark, which will tie Danish foreign aid to Danish values and way of life. Soren has picked the Philippines as the pilot area for the approach that he hopes will give his country a kind of "branding" Danes can be proud of.
* * *
The marketing of Denmark is expected to intensify as Andersen’s bicentennial approaches, SARS and terrorism be damned. Lars Sandahl Sorensen, CEO of the Danish Tourist Board, said he expected the problems plaguing the world these days to continue for a long time. But people can’t allow worry to overwhelm them, Sorensen told foreign guests in Copenhagen Wednesday night.

Flemming Bruhn, marketing head of the tourist board, said Denmark’s visitors are mostly locals and other Europeans, making it easier for the country to survive the blows that have struck the travel industry. But Sorensen admitted that Denmark’s overseas market, which accounts for upto 50 percent of the country’s tourism revenues, has suffered from terrorism and the SARS scare.

Nila Layug, SAS country manager for the Philippines, said the travel industry has been suffering since the global economic slowdown that started in 2000. SAS is still in the red and is cutting 4,000 jobs from March to August this year. This is on top of the 3,600 who have already been downsized.

With the SARS outbreak, SAS was forced to cut flights from Asia. But Nila hopes SAS will revive expansion plans by summer of 2004, perhaps starting with Shanghai. Nila is not the only one trying to be optimistic.

"We are in the business of dreams. People want a break," Sorensen said as he urged members of the travel industry to have "dreams, creativity, business and change… There are a lot of opportunities in this world."

In the land of hygge, untouched by war, terror and a deadly virus, it’s easier to dream.

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