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The mayor of Canada's largest city urged people to paint the town red Wednesday as hotels, eateries and tourist attractions girded for a long, hard fight to rescue a $3.4-billion industry from SARS.

Mayor Mel Lastman was fuming as he pleaded with residents to get out and spend, spend, spend to counteract the World Health Organization's advice to avoid travelling to Toronto.

"The impact for tourism is devastating; we depend a lot on tourism, and it's going to hurt," Mr. Lastman told a news conference.

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"Eat out at your favourite restaurant. Go visit the theatre or the CN Tower. Spend the weekend at a Toronto hotel and cheer for the Blue Jays."

If the mood in the city's tourism industry was blue in the weeks since severe acute respiratory syndrome arrived in Canada last month, it turned downright black Wednesday.

"This is very, very sad," said a rueful Bud Purves, the usually chipper president of the CN Tower, arguably Canada's most recognizable tourist attraction.

"I'm not going to sugar-coat this; I think it will have a very severe downturn on us," Mr. Purves said. "This is going to hit the pocketbook of every person in Toronto."

Mr. Purves said he has had "a number of cancellations" in recent weeks; receipts over the Easter long weekend were down 15 per cent compared to previous years.

Each year, Toronto plays host to some 16 million visitors who fuel the city's second largest industry to the tune of more than $3.4-billion each year.

The ensuing economic impact is worth more than $7-billion annually and supports some 95,000 jobs in the greater Toronto area alone, says Tourism Toronto.

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"We do know that the impacts on hotel reservations are very severe," said Joe Halstead, the city's commissioner of economic development.

"We know that our restaurants are in dire straits in particular in certain sectors of the city. We know that our retail sector is feeling the pinch in major ways."

It's hard to estimate the exact impact to date, since returns on sales tax in Ontario - the traditional benchmark used to gauge tourism spending - are three months behind, Mr. Halstead said.

But anecdotal evidence from retailers suggests sales are down by between 20 and 30 per cent, he said. Some restaurants in the downtown core say they've lost more than half their customers.

Bruce MacMillan, Tourism Toronto president and chief executive, announced plans for a coalition of business, government and labour leaders who will devise ways to keep damage to a minimum.

For the moment, however, the plan is to keep tour operators, convention organizers and the like from pulling the plug for no good reason, Mr. MacMillan said.

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"Not all the facts are getting out to them," he said.

"We are talking to every convention organizer, we're talking to every tour operator, we are getting them the information. That's what people want right now, they want the facts."

To date, two major conventions scheduled for Toronto have been cancelled, Mr. MacMillan said: the American Association of Cancer Research and the Society of Vascular Surgery, which together were worth $25-million to the city.

But not all the news is bad, he added.

Two high-profile conferences, the U.S. National Association of School Psychologists and the Industrial Accident Prevention Association, went ahead as scheduled, and the 20th annual Toronto Wine Show had one of its best years ever.

Tourism isn't Toronto's only soft spot, either. Mr. Lastman said he intends to ask the big banks to defer loan and mortgage payments for those affected by the outbreak.

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He also declared a moratorium on evicting people who can't pay their rent because they've been sick or forced to stay home.

"This isn't a city in the grips of fear and panic," Mr. Lastman said. "This is a city of 2.5 million people going about their business the same way they always did."

Just how serious the impact of the WHO advisory will be remains to be seen, economists say. But SARS has already prompted some to trim Canada's GDP growth forecasts by a full percentage point.

Bank of Canada governor David Dodge said SARS was certain to have a major impact in Toronto, which in turn could trigger a modest effect in other parts of the country, but added it was "far too early" to say how much.

Tourism, hospitality and travel sectors will be hardest hit, he said.

But Dodge was quick to note that much of the impact will be deferred spending; events and visits that are merely postponed until a later date rather than cancelled altogether. That appears to be the case at the Ontario Science Centre, where some groups have cancelled their plans, said spokesman Matt Akler.

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"A number of them also though have rebooked for down the road when they expect things aren't as much of a concern."



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