With cases of novel coronavirus (which causes the disease known as COVID-19) exploding around the country and around the globe, travelers are panicking as they wonder what this means when it comes to their personal safety—and for their upcoming trips. Read on for some scary facts about coronavirus travel—like what an air quality expert thinks this means for cruise ships and airplanes—as well as the results of some worrisome travel studies. But we’ve also got reassuring advice and helpful information on coronavirus travel. This is an emerging story; please continue to check back for updates.
Coronavirus Travel: The Situation
As of March 4, nine people in the US have died and more than 3,000 people have died around the globe from coronavirus and infections have been reported in dozens of countries and at least 15 states. The skyrocketing numbers of coronavirus cases and the growing death toll has sparked worldwide travel ramifications, forcing the cancellation of major conferences like Berlin’s ITB—the largest travel and tourism event in the world—closures of tourist sites such as the Louvre museum in Paris, airlines cancelling flights and companies cancelling business travel at alarming rates. According to a recent Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) survey of 401 companies, 65% report that they have cancelled meetings or events due to the coronavirus. The travel app Hopper analyzed billions of airfare prices and flight searches to see how the coronavirus is impacting travel and noted that demand is plummeting in many international destinations.
The World Health Organization has not declared COVID-19 a pandemic, but experts are saying that it could be the worst travel crisis since the September 11 terrorist attacks.
“While it’s important to temper the hysteria and make it clear that the travel and tourism sector is not going to grind to a halt altogether, we must be realistic and acknowledge the fact that it will need to navigate choppy waters for some time to come,” says Nick Wyatt, head of R&A and Travel & Tourism at GlobalData, a leading data and analytics company. “This is likely to get worse before it gets better again.”
And there are definitely choppy waters out there. The cruise industry has been particularly hard hit after headline-making incidents like the quarantine of the Diamond Princess in Japan—resulting in hundreds of passengers being sickened and at least 10 deaths—and Holland America’s MS Westerdam, which was turned away from countries across Asia.
Coronavirus Travel: Spreading the Disease
According to reports, many travelers are postponing or cancelling their cruise vacations, as a result. That might be a good thing, if you listen to Purdue University air quality expert Qingyan Chen, the James G. Dwyer Professor of Mechanical Engineering. Chen—who has researched the spread of air particles in passenger vehicles and how to track them—says that cruise ship air conditioning systems are not designed to filter out particles as small as the coronavirus, allowing the disease to rapidly circulate to other cabins.
“It’s standard practice for the air conditioning systems of cruise ships to mix outside air with inside air to save energy. The problem is that these systems can’t filter out particles smaller than 5,000 nanometers,” says Chen. “If the coronavirus is about the same size as SARS, which is 120 nanometers in diameter, then the air conditioning system would be carrying the virus to every cabin.”
On airplanes, the coronavirus is more likely to spread by touch than through the air, says Chen, since the air conditioning systems of planes are capable of filtering out particles as small as viruses. But air carrying the virus could transfer to other people sitting in the same row as an infected passenger or a neighboring row. “The further away you’re sitting from a person who is infected, the better,” says Chen, who also warns that toilets are the biggest hot spot for the virus on a plane. “Stool also contains viruses. Close the lid before you flush to limit how much goes into the air,” he says, recommending that travelers also use disinfecting wipes with alcohol to prevent the spread of the virus through touch.
Another scary fact: Close to 20% of passengers have flown sick on a plane, either knowingly or unknowingly, according to a new survey from travel search engine Reservations.com—though the company’s cofounder and CEO Yatin Patel believes that there’s been a shift as of late. “We’ve definitely seen a shift in travelers behaviors throughout the recent outbreak with travelers becoming more conscious about flying while sick, as well as more conscious about fellow passengers traveling while sick,” says Patel.
So is flying on a plane with other sick passengers dangerous? It depends on who you ask—and where you’re sitting. A recent study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that the 11 closest people seated near the sick passenger had an 80% chance of becoming infected themselves. (The researchers ran a network-based transmission model and simulation to estimate chances of becoming infected by an airborne disease.)
Despite those sobering stats, travel industry professionals are doing their best to reassure travelers, keep them calm—and offer solutions.
Many travel companies are starting to offer generous cancellation policies. For instance, JetBlue is waiving the fees for changes and cancelling travel bookings made between February 27, 2020, and March 11, 2020, for travel through June 1, 2020.
The cruise lines are also being flexible in order to ease worries about cruising amid a coronavirus outbreak. Windstar Cruises has introduced a new Travel Assurance Booking Policy, changing its rules so that travelers can cancel up to 15 days before departure and not lose their money. They will receive a future cruise credit for 100% of the cruise fare paid. Other lines have put similar policies in place.
Jack Ezon, founder and managing partner of Embark, a luxury lifestyle and travel planning business that caters to a high-net-worth audience, says that he’s seen about 45% of clients cancelling trip plans between now and April. “But we’ve rebooked about half of those,” he says. “So 45% have cancelled their original plans and about half of those have rebooked to things that they feel more comfortable with. For example, we cancelled a trip to Amsterdam for a family, but we moved them to Nashville.”
Beyond April, Ezon says that only 2% of travelers are cancelling trips. “I have people who are saying, ‘It’s a cold. It’s a bad cold. A bad flu. But I’m not going to stop my life.’”
Perception Versus Reality
Ezon also points out that perception might be scarier than reality. “Our team was in northern Italy last weekend on a site inspection for a potential wedding this summer, just as news was coming out,” says Ezon. “What surprised me was the disparity between perception and reality. Not only was the airport fine and things operating on schedule, places like Florence, Rome and the Amalfi Coast were having an ordinary day with streets full of people.”
And indeed, travel industry experts in Italy report that life is going on as usual in most of the country.
“There is currently a red zone in northern Italy, while the rest of the country is totally free of infections and restrictions. The red zone has been quarantined to prevent and limit the spread of the virus,” explains Vito Cinque, owner of Il San Pietro di Positano hotel on the Amalfi Coast. “Currently the virus has affected 0.0089% of the local population…but the seriously ill are people with pre-existing conditions while more than half of the infected have no symptoms or have mild symptoms and are treated at home. Like a normal flu. For this reason, after initially stopping the activities and closing the museums, everything is returning to normal from this morning. The measures were preventive in nature, but many considered them alarmist.”
“We are communicating to all our friends in the world the message that traveling in Italy is safe: not because we are in the hotel sector, but because it is the reality,” says Cinque.
Urbano Brini, cofounder of the tour operator Florencetown, agrees: “Life in Florence is completely normal. All schools and public as well as private offices are open. People are going to work, to museums, to the movies, to restaurants.”
According to Martino Acampora, general manager of J.K.Place hotel in Capri, the situation in Italy is totally normal. “I travel between Capri and Rome on a weekly basis and I can confirm that trains are running smoothly, train stations are full and nobody is using masks. Life in general is normal, we have zero restrictions,” says Acampora. “Would I suggest people to travel to Italy? To give my own perspective I would say traveling to Italy is as safe as it is to travel anywhere else in Europe/world. Italy has taken actions of massive prevention.”
But the situation is impacting business, regardless—especially in the travel sector, notes Davide Bertilaccio, regional vice president and managing director of the Rosewood Castiglion del Bosco hotel in Montalcino. “Business has been badly affected by this situation, where in some cases over 50% of the bookings have been released; probably caused more by the reaction of single countries which have imposed severe restrictions where travelers who have been in Italy are required some period in quarantine,” says Bertilaccio. “And this is considerably changing the economic scenario, not only for the tourism sector.”
Ezon himself is currently in Puerto Rico and noted that—despite media reports—airports, planes and hotels are full. “I was in the airport this past Friday flying to Puerto Rico where I am now,” he says. “The airport was jammed. There were no seats on the plane, and staying here at Ritz Carlton’s Dorado Beach, they are at 95% occupancy.”
Helpful Advice for Travelers
Here, Embark offers some helpful and practical advice for travelers in regards to coronavirus:
· As you should always do, stay clean and sanitize, avoiding touching your mouth, nose or ears.
· Masks don’t prevent anyone from getting a virus but, rather, reduce the risk of someone spreading it.
· Never speculate on safety anywhere.
· Put things into perspective rather than getting caught up in media sensationalism.
· Pay with a credit card.
· If you feel like you will have anxiety about being away from home, then save your trip for another time.
Another suggestion: The travel insurance comparison site site TravelInsurance.com recommends getting a Cancel for Any Reason (CFAR) policy, which is the only way to give travelers assurance that they can recoup at least part of their costs if they decide they don’t want to travel due to the fear of getting ill or general concerns over COVID-19. Standard travel insurance plans will not cover losses due to the coronavirus outbreak, including government travel advisories and restrictions.
The website InsureMyTrip reports high demand for travel insurance since the first travel-related case of novel coronavirus was detected in the US. Data researchers at the travel insurance comparison site show a 60% increase in policies sold since January 21st, 2020 that specifically include a “cancel for any reason” benefit.
When it comes to staying healthy, the Center for Disease Control lists a number of tips on its website, including washing hands with soap and water, and if soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol (though the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave a warning to Purell to stop claiming its products can prevent people from catching certain diseases). Careful travelers are also wiping down surfaces—including the space around them on an airplane—with products like PURE Hard Surface, which sells primarily to commercial and businesses including the healthcare systems, the cruise lines, airports and more and has FDA support.
Avoiding crowds is also smart. “Since Coronavirus broke over a month ago, I’ve been traveling regularly from Australia to North America, Singapore to Europe. It’s not hard to avoid this virus on your travels, the secret is avoiding crowds,” says Tim Hentschel, CEO and cofounder of HotelPlanner, one of the leading online sellers of group hotel bookings and individual hotel stays worldwide. “I know this is not always easy when going through places like airport security, but this is why getting to the airport at off-peak times or flying out of low-traffic secondary airports, and having status to go in VIP lines is important.”
Hentschel also advises avoiding public transportation, if possible, or taking trains or planes on off-peak times when the seats are empty. “These tips also help save money,” says Hentschel.
Ultimately, Reservation.com’s Patel hopes and believes that there will be a positive end result. “I believe that the current situation will have a strong impact on the way we travel for years to come. It has definitely been a wakeup call for citizens globally,” says Patel. “All we can hope is that as a result of negative circumstances such as this, we will continue to see positive change moving forward to ensure that this does not happen again and continue to ensure the safety of travelers.”