Anti-NATO protests in China prompt supplier refunds

SAN FRANCISCO -- Some leading suppliers to China implemented refund policies for clients already there and to others booked to travel to the country due to the demonstrations in China that were sparked by NATO's accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia.

The U.S. State Department issued a travel warning May 9 advising Americans to defer nonessential travel to China until the situation stabilizes.

Kurt Bodmer, vice president of product development for San Diego-based Japan & Orient Tours, said his firm has heard from "quite a number of people who are supposed to go to China and groups that are in China, and in principle we are trying to accommodate everyone according to their wishes."

"[For those] who are there and are contacting us, we are immediately suggesting they get on a flight and come back and we will refund what has not been used."

Since the demonstrations have been held only in major cities, like Beijing and Guangzhou, Bodmer said, clients traveling within other popular Chinese destinations have little to fear. "If they are in Xian or are on the Yangtze River there is not a problem," he said. Bodmer added that his firm has no clients in Guangzhou.

New York-based Victoria Cruises, a major operator of Yangtze cruise programs, is offering full refunds to concerned clients, although it is not overly concerned about safety in the region. "We've been in touch with our office in China and our vessels in China -- we have five vessels currently sailing on the Yangtze," said Larry Greenman, marketing manager of Victoria Cruises.

"First of all, all of our people in the vessels are safe and secure. The demonstrations are in the major cities that have a major consular office ... and in any case a boat in the middle of the river is a pretty safe place to be. But we do understand peoples' hesitancy to travel in China. Until the situation stabilizes we will fully refund any passenger wishing to cancel," Greenman said. "I think the demonstrations are going to die down in the very near future," he added.

The U.S. State Department warning advised U.S. citizens already in the Peoples Republic of China to remain close to their hotels and to avoid crowds and demonstrations.

The U.S. government also suspended travel by its employees to China and instructed personnel already there to remain at home until the situation calms. It also temporarily closed the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and the U.S. Consulates General in Guangzhou, Shanghai, Shenyang and Chengdu.

According to the China National Tourist Office (CNTO) in Glendale, Calif., however, the State Department has been overly cautious. "This travel warning is kind of misleading advertising to American citizens," said Zhu Haifeng, assistant director of CNTO's Los Angeles-area office.

"The Chinese government said in a nationally televised address that the government will take all possible measures to protect foreign diplomats, property or staff, and also protect foreign visitors," he said. "The government has advised protesters to not take any measure to attack foreign visitors, especially Americans."

Demonstrations in mainland China also led the State Department to suggest that, while "circumstances in Hong Kong are relatively quiet, the possibility of further demonstrations cannot be excluded."

Clients so far have not expressed many concerns about travel to Hong Kong. "I haven't heard any concerns about Hong Kong at all, Bodmer said. "The concerns are only from people who are going to China, and in particular Beijing, and to a certain extent Shanghai -- although there haven't been any problems there."

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