As news has proliferated about the Covid-19 coronavirus’ spread in Europe, mostly concentrated in Italy, travel advisors were busy fielding calls from concerned customers. 

But most advisors hadn’t seen a notable uptick in cancellations and were hopeful that any of the virus’ effects on travel would be short-lived.

“This too shall pass,” said ASTA president and CEO Zane Kerby. “In the short term, there is going to be some results of less regional travel to the Far East, absolutely, and to China, of course. But are people going to stop traveling? No.”

Kerby cited U.S Commerce Department data from 2000-2018 that shows the number of U.S. residents traveling overseas has either remained flat or increased every year, with the exception of the financial crisis in 2008. In that time period, Kerby said, the travel industry has faced 9/11, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and illnesses ranging from Ebola to Zika virus.

“You think about all of the systemic things that you’d think would affect travel, and none of them put a dent in the number of overseas travelers when you look at a full year,” he said.

Kerby acknowledged that the coronavirus situation could take a turn for the worse, but said as of Tuesday, it appeared the industry was on the mend from its initial impacts.

Travel advisors said clients were mainly calling with questions and concerns about coronavirus, but not canceling their trips.

Italy is one of travel advisor Maddie Winters’ most popular destinations in Europe. Winters, with Town Place Travel & Cruises in Marlton, N.J., said advisors have been getting calls but no cancellations.

“They’re mostly fielding information instead of making decisions yet because the situation is very new,” she said on Tuesday. 

Richard Turen, managing director and owner of Churchill & Turen Ltd. in Naperville, Ill., has also been talking to clients about coronavirus. Thus far, he hasn’t had any cancellations, though he does expect a small number of travelers will choose to delay their trips.

Turen predicted travel advisors have an uphill battle following the quarantining of the Diamond Princess off Japan.

“The problem with ships is that we had, for the first time, people who were incarcerated on their cruise, and I see that as being a little bit different in terms of the kinds of impressions it made and the kinds of things all of us have to try now in terms of perceptions to change and overcome,” he said. “That’s a real challenge. We didn’t have that before.”

He also predicted an upcoming challenge for advisors if cruise lines discount cruises, especially as those discounts don’t have to be passed on to cruisers who have already booked.

In the meantime, Turen is advising travelers to wait to change their plans if they can, because they often come out with a better deal if plans are canceled by a supplier.

Dennis Nienkerk, a luxury cruise specialist with Strong Travel Services Inc. in Dallas, started off his Monday morning with two cancellations, and he expected that trend to continue.

“I’d say about half of my clients that have cruises booked have called or emailed me with concerns about whether they should go,” Nienkerk said.

For example, he has a family of 10 leaving for a Silversea sailing in the Caribbean in just a few days, and they were concerned about being on a ship. But in their case, he explained that there were no known coronavirus cases in the Caribbean, and the only ship that had been directly affected was the Diamond Princess; they still plan to travel.

“Everybody’s skittish,” he said. “I’m a little skittish. I’m leaving tomorrow on a 21-day Silversea cruise from Argentina to Cape Town, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the ports, they might not let us in, even in the South Atlantic. I hope they will, but that’s going to be an increasing issue.”

Janet Papilla, vice president of Boscov’s Travel in Reading, Pa., agreed that travelers are skittish.

“Even though you explain there have been more deaths from the flu in the U.S.A., they are scared or concerned about traveling,” she said. “I think the concern is not just the fear of getting the virus, but also the fear they could be quarantined and not be permitted to return home.”

Dayton, Ohio-based Huffman Travel has experienced a few cancellations, but mostly travelers are in wait-and-see mode, founder and chairman Tony Huffman said. Like with other potential travel disruptors, he said Huffman Travel’s policy with coronavirus is never to take a position with clients. Instead, they are given the facts and encouraged to make their own decisions.

Like Kerby, Huffman is hopeful the industry will be able to put any coronavirus-related issues behind it soon.

“We’ve been through this before,” he said. “We had SARS virus. We have crises in our industry all the time, and we just have to deal with them as we can.”

Corporate travel is also feeling the effects of Covid-19.

Martin Ferguson, vice president of public affairs for American Express Global Business Travel (No. 3 on Travel Weekly’s 2019 Power List), said GBT’s clients have been revisiting travel schedules and planned meetings and events to keep up with changing travel restrictions and advisories. But, Ferguson pointed out, there will always be a need for business travel to places like China.

“So, while we may see less travel to China happening amidst the current government-issued travel advisory, with businesses opting to use technologies like video conferencing in the interim, there are still people traveling there,” Ferguson said.


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