Hong Kong hoteliers absorb Japan exodus

HONG KONG, March 18, 2011 (AFP) - Hong Kong's hotels, already jammed during their busy peak season, are scrambling to accommodate companies evacuating staff out of quake-hit Japan amid its nuclear crisis.

The luxury Langham Hotel has taken at least 20 corporate bookings at its three Hong Kong properties in recent days, but demand is outstripping supply.

"Hong Kong is a natural safe haven for the companies seeking to relocate their teams out of Japan," a spokesman told AFP.

"(We) have received a large number of enquiries from these companies which are mostly in the financial sector."

The JW Marriott, Four Seasons and Shangri-La have also seen a jump in room requests from firms moving staff, and individuals -- mainly expatriates -- fleeing the stricken country.

"March is traditionally a peak season for hotel bookings, so not many rooms are available anyway," said Lilian Lui, the Kowloon Shangri-La's director of sales and marketing.

"(I'm) not sure if hotels can accommodate all travellers from Japan if there is a huge influx," she added.

But some in Hong Kong are panicking about the potential effects of radiation in the southern Chinese territory, despite being over 1,700 miles from the disaster zone and officials repeatedly saying that it was at little risk.

Japan's nuclear safety agency on Friday raised the Fukushima accident level to five from four on the seven-point international scale of gravity for atomic accidents.

Hong Kong media reported stores being cleared out of ordinary table salt following Internet claims that iodine in the seasoning would guard against radiation exposure, echoing mass panic buying of salt on the Chinese mainland.

They carried pictures of residents -- already nervous after a string of public health disasters -- buying huge sacks of salt, and there were reports of salt re-selling in online auctions as prices soared tenfold or more.

Some people have even loaded up on salty soy sauce, while there has been a run on Japanese products.

Hong Kong's deputy health chief Gabriel Leung rejected the table salt solution, saying "one has to take about 2.5 to five kilograms of (iodized) table salt a day in order to absorb the dose of iodine... in an iodine tablet."

The rush comes after shoppers as far away as California hoarded iodine tablets, reportedly an effective guard against certain types of radiation.

One enterprising expatriate who works in Hong Kong's financial sector cleared a store out of the dietary supplement Spirulina, which has also been the subject of rumours that it can mitigate radiation exposure.

He then resold the HK$300 ($38) bottles for at least double their price.

"At first it was for self-protection. But after I realised there really wasn't any risk here, I sold (the Spirulina) through word of mouth and people I knew," he told AFP, asking not to be named.

"When the market is panicking, people just want to pick up something that may help."

Hong Kong on Friday dispatched a team of about 20 officials to Japan to help residents return to the city or relocate within the stricken country.

"The chance of radiation from Japan reaching Hong Kong in the next few days is slim," the Hong Kong Observatory said Wednesday, and its reassuring line has not changed.

But Jeanette Hoch, a Swedish mother of two who moved to Hong Kong last year, said she and her family might leave if the city was affected by the Japanese crisis.

"I'm worried and am considering leaving if it got worse," Hoch told AFP.

"I know we're a great distance from the (nuclear) plant and I don't feel immediately threatened, but I'd rather be safe than sorry."

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