Coronavirus causes headaches for travel agents

Jacqui Ingram says people are changing their travel plans and others are cancelling because of fears of exposure to coronavirus, now known as COVID-19.
Jacqui Ingram says people are changing their travel plans and others are cancelling because of fears of exposure to coronavirus, now known as COVID-19.

LOCAL travel agents have been swamped by cancellations and travel changes in the wake of the novel coronavirus outbreak.

Agents say there is growing panic among travellers desperate to avoid Asia, as infections rise above 69,000 and the virus is detected in 24 countries outside China.

Travel Design, Sale, owner Peter Emms said people were panicking about their travel plans, with many re-booking or cancelling holidays - even to places far from the epicentre - because of uncertainty about the virus's spread.

"Yes, there has been quite an impact on the travel industry," he said.

"People are concerned, and they are wanting assurance," he said.

Mr Emms said insurance issues had heightened people's concern, with people who had changed their plans or been affected by travel bans refused refunds from some insurance companies.

"It's difficult because people can't take their holidays because of the travel bans, even if fares have been booked and paid for," he said.

Australia has imposed a travel ban for all non-Australian residents travelling from China, and is advising Australians not to travel to China.

In addition, many travel insurers excluded coronavirus - now referred to as COVID-19 - from their policies after the World Health Organisation's declared on January 23 it was a public health emergency of international concern.

According to Choice, anyone who buys travel insurance after a pandemic or epidemic, such as coronavirus becomes a known event, won't be covered, regardless.

Several brands have issued warnings on their websites warning travellers that insurance bought after a certain date will not protect them from the pandemic, anywhere in the world.

Flying Colours, Sale, owner-operator Jacqui Ingram said the virus outbreak was now a major influence on people's travel choices, with many avoiding Asia altogether.

She predicted the outbreak would have a significant affect on the cruise industry, where most bookings were done in advance.

So far, five cruise ships including Diamond Princess, World Dream, Anthem of Seas, Westerdam and Costa Smeralda have been quarantined after fears of possible infections.

There are 225 Australians from the Diamond Princess stuck in Japan, with 16 who have tested positive for coronavirus currently being treated in hospitals across Japan.

There are also 3700 other passengers stranded on the ship, where it is quarantined at Yokohama, Japan.

The total number of people on the ship infected was 355 yesterday morning, with the first case detected on February 3, when a passenger tested positive after disembarking in Hong Kong.

Most cruise lines are now refusing to accept passengers who have travelled to or visited or transited through China, Hong Kong and Macau within 14 days before embarkation.

Ms Ingram said that constant news coverage was adding to the sense of panic for local holiday makers, many of whom were regular cruise travellers.

"Cruising is the most popular thing in the travel industry at the moment, so it is likely to be significantly affected," she said.

She said while many reputable tour operators were offering refunds for people whose travel plans were affected, it was not guaranteed, and travellers should check their booking details.

"It does seem to be a case-by-case situation, and it really depends on the booking conditions," she said.

Tour operators, airline and travel agents are monitoring the situation.

"Nobody can predict what will happen with this virus, and while some airlines are saying refunds will be given for travellers departing before the end of February, others are saying end of March, no one knows what will happen," Ms Ingram said.

As of Monday morning, there had been more than 69,000 infections recorded since the epidemic began, and more than 1670 deaths.

There are 15 confirmed cases of coronavirus (CO VID-19) in Australia, including four in Victoria, the Health Department reported on Monday.