Coronavirus disrupts travel plans across Asia

  • >>Reed Abelson and Katie Thomas, The New York Times
    Published: 2020-02-08 16:28:39 BdST

In the midst of spreading fear over the coronavirus outbreak, travellers to Asia, even to countries far from the epicentre of the virus in China, are beginning to reconsider their plans.

While hard data on cancellations is scarce, as airlines, hotels and travel boards say they do not yet have numbers or will not share them, some tour operators, travel insurance brokers and even airline employees say they are facing growing numbers of customers changing their plans.

Brian Fitzgerald, president of Overseas Adventure Travel, a company providing group tours to travellers mostly over 50, said that after its initial cancellations for trips to China through April in the wake of the outbreak’s announcement, this week tourists slated to go to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam were starting to reconsider as well.

“People are worried about traveling to Asia when they should be cognizant of traveling to China,” Fitzgerald said.

He said the company had received “almost no new bookings” to China for the first half of the year and cancelled trips. It offered about 400 travellers a full refund, the option to go elsewhere or to take the trip at a later date.

The January data for APRIL Travel Protection, an insurance provider, which tracks residents in the United States traveling to every country in the world, shows that claims with an Asian country in the itinerary more than doubled compared to January 2019. Additionally this January, 3% of all the company’s received claims were for cancellations related to the coronavirus.

Hopper, a booking site that specialises in using data to suggest the best time to purchase travel, estimated that demand for international travel had declined by 3% since the first week in January, Brianna Schneider, the company’s director of communications, said in an email. She said 80% of the decline was directly driven by demand from the United States to China; the other 20% was “a peripheral impact on other international destinations.”

Calls to airline reservations lines also found travellers looking to cancel. Tina, a Los Angeles-based reservation receptionist for Asiana Airlines, South Korea’s second largest airline, said that in the last week she’d seen calls to the centre spike as much as 50%. She did not give her last name, citing company policy.

“They don’t want to go to Asia,” she said. “Even though we cannot waive the fee for the Philippines or the other Southeast Asian countries, they still want to cancel.”

Similarly, Jordan, a Philippines-based customer service agent for Singapore Airlines who did not provide his last name because of company policy, confirmed an uptick in cancellations, despite the fact that the airline has offered to reroute passengers to bypass mainland China and Hong Kong without charge.

The continent of Asia has become an increasingly popular tourist destination in recent years. In 2018, more than 343 million international tourists travelled to Asia and the Pacific, according to the World Tourism Organisation, an increase of 6% from the prior year.

People wearing face masks wait to cross a road near the Lama Temple, as the country is hit by an outbreak of the novel coronavirus, in Beijing, China Feb 8, 2020. REUTERS

People wearing face masks wait to cross a road near the Lama Temple, as the country is hit by an outbreak of the novel coronavirus, in Beijing, China Feb 8, 2020. REUTERS

The coronavirus, with its initial cases reported in Wuhan, China, has sickened thousands and caused hundreds of deaths — all but two in mainland China.

More than 20 international carriers have suspended or restricted routes that ended in Wuhan and other major Chinese cities, including Beijing, Hong Kong and Shanghai.

A number of airlines including China Eastern Airlines, Cathay Pacific and Air China route passengers through those cities on their way to other destinations. For some travellers, even a brief layover in China is not worth the risk.

Jessica Salina and her husband, Anthony, planned to honeymoon in Japan in March — their first time traveling to Asia. But their Air China flight between Los Angeles and Tokyo included a layover in Beijing, and they decided to cancel on Jan 30.

“My biggest fear was not Japan, but that layover in Beijing,” Jessica Salina said in an email. “Between the large airport and additional screenings, I was starting to full-blown panic.”

Luckily for her, the travel agency she booked through, Affordable World, provided penalty-free refunds for cancellation of flights passing through China.

But other travellers whose itineraries never touched China are choosing to cancel as well, concerned about assuming unnecessary risk for a trip that can be taken another time.

Japan, in the heat of preparations for the Summer Olympics and trying to avoid an outbreak there, has focused attention on the Diamond Princess, a cruise ship that has been docked in its port city of Yokohama since last week. More than 2,000 passengers are under a two-week quarantine, as cases onboard have escalated rapidly. Up to 61 people had tested positive for coronavirus by Friday, from the 20 cases confirmed Thursday.

Thursday morning the Holland America Line updated its website, saying that it had been notified that the Japanese government would not allow the estimated 2,000 passengers aboard its MS Westerdam to dock in Japanese ports.

The company issued a statement: “We are quickly working to develop alternate plans for guests currently on board and will keep them updated as information becomes available.”

The cruise line has cancelled a sailing on the Westerdam, scheduled to embark in Yokohama Feb. 15, but has announced no changes to the ship’s itinerary after that time.

Other cruise companies that operate in Asia declined to specify changes to their planned sailings or how many people had cancelled. “All itineraries that call in mainland China for the next six months are currently under review and we will communicate any itinerary revisions as soon as possible,” Norwegian Cruise Line said in a statement. “As always, we will closely monitor the situation and take appropriate action as necessary.”

Kay Cuellar, deputy manager of the Los Angeles office of the Japan National Tourism Organisation, noted earlier in the week that in Japan, “all the necessary precautions are being taken” and cautioned visitors not to overreact.

“I don’t think it necessarily warrants the great concern that it’s getting in the media,” Cuellar said. “There’s no cause for that level of alarm.”

In addition to the infected passengers aboard the Diamond Princess, Japan has another at least 25 cases.

Stephen England-Hall, the chief executive of Tourism New Zealand, said in an email that his country had not seen a significant impact on arrivals yet but that even though New Zealand is more than 6,000 miles away from Wuhan: “We expect that there will be a general softening in consumers preference to travel globally as a result.”

Jason Schreier, the chief executive of APRIL Travel Protection, said the company’s call centre had been lit up with travellers calling to purchase policies and to better understand their current coverage.

Schreier said the company had received a plethora of calls from travel agents and tourists trying to determine if they would be reimbursed for cancelling based on growing concern about coronavirus.

The answer in most cases was no: “Fear of going to someplace is not unfortunately something that people can cancel for unless they have ‘cancel for any reason’ coverage,” he said. That coverage is far more expensive than the standard policy.

© 2019 New York Times News Service