SINGAPORE: Travel agencies in Singapore have seen cancellations on holiday bookings made for China as the Wuhan virus continues to spread, leading some to suspend all tours to the country for the coming weeks.
Dynasty Travel said about 200 travellers who have made bookings to visit China in February and March, have cancelled or postponed their trips.
“People are worried,” said director of public relations and communications Alicia Seah, adding that the cancellations have risen after enhanced measures against the novel coronavirus, including a 14-day leave of absence for those working in certain sectors upon returning from China, were announced in Singapore earlier this week.
“At this point in time, we are liaising with hotels and airlines for amicable solutions for our customers,” she told CNA.
At EU Holidays, all tours to China starting from Jan 26 to the end of March have been cancelled amid rising concerns among its customers. A majority of those affected have thus far opted to change tours or postpone their trips to China, said the spokesman.
For China-bound tours departing in April, EU Holidays said it continues to assess the situation and will provide relevant updates promptly.
Likewise, Chan Brothers Travel told CNA that it is “suspending tours to China progressively with departures till Feb 29, 2020 for now”.
Apart from holidaymakers having second thoughts about visiting China, inbound tours from China have also come to a near standstill following the country’s recent ban on overseas group tours, tour operators said.
The ban was announced over the weekend by Chinese authorities in an attempt to control the spread of the flu-like virus.
In response to CNA’s queries, a spokesperson from the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore (NATAS) said: “Currently, there is full cancellation of inbound tours from the China market.”
With its travel bookings from China for the month of February “all been cancelled”, Dynasty Travel’s Ms Seah said: “We are now worried about both inbound and outbound travel to and from China.
“As you know, the largest inbound tourist market for Singapore is China, accounting for about 18 per cent so the industry is actually quite reliant on Chinese tourists.”
CAUTIOUS ABOUT IMPACT AHEAD
Speaking at a multi-agency press conference on Monday, Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing warned that the global outbreak will affect Singapore’s economy, with tourism-related sectors being of “immediate concern”.
Economists have said the repercussions on tourism could start showing as soon as next month and cautioned that if the outbreak is prolonged, it could chill travel demand worldwide and have a negative impact such as that seen during the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003.
READ: Wuhan virus to hit Singapore’s tourism sector, but too soon to assess impact on overall economy: Experts
Then, at the peak of the epidemic in April 2003, many countries in the Asia Pacific reported falls in tourist arrivals by more than 50 per cent as passenger demand in the region plunged 45 per cent, according to the International Air Transport Association.
In Singapore, overall visitor arrivals fell by 15 per cent in March, followed by a steeper drop of 61 per cent in the first 13 days of April. As a result, average hotel occupancy rates fell sharply to between 20 per cent and 30 per cent, compared with normal levels of 70 per cent or above, official statistics showed.
For now, about 20 per cent of inbound tour groups from other countries have requested postponements or cancellations, NATAS said.
“NATAS is deeply concerned of the current situation,” its spokesperson said, adding that the association has sent out an advisory to all tour operators and guides as of Jan 29 “to seek their cooperation in adhering to the guidelines to prevent any spread of virus”.
These include the daily cleaning of all coaches and rescheduling of itineraries to avoid over-crowded areas for tour operators, according to the guide seen by CNA. Tour guides are to don appropriate masks when on duty, practice good hygiene, look out for symptoms among tourists and arrange for immediate medical attention upon detection.
EU Holidays said it has seen a “handful of passengers” holding back their holiday plans to the region so far.
“Business will definitely be affected,” said the spokesman from EU Holidays. “We are cautious but confident with how (the outbreak) is handled by the Singapore Government."
Dynasty Travel’s Ms Seah also expressed hopes that the rapid containment measures adopted by governments around the world, as a result of the SARS experience, will mean “short-term pain for the long-term gain”.
To tide through the upcoming uncertainties, travel agencies said they have started reducing advertising spending on the Chinese market and are shifting their attention to other destinations instead.
“We are negotiating deals with our travel partners to stimulate more travellers to other destinations,” said EU Holidays. “We will have new measures to address the increasingly cautious sentiment.”
Meanwhile, NATAS declined to comment if its travel fair planned for Feb 21 to 23 at the Singapore Expo will go on as planned.
Given how the outbreak continues to unravel, travel agencies that have previously signed up as exhibitors said they are taking a wait-and-see approach.
Ms Victoria Chong, marketing communications executive from Chan Brothers Travel, said “now might not be the most opportune time for such an event”.
EU Holidays said while it remains a participant of the travel fair for now, it will continue to monitor the situation and might pull out if it feels that the risk exposure for its staff and customers is too high.
The new virus, which originated from the Chinese city of Wuhan, has killed at least 170 and infected more than 7,700 people in China, the country's authorities said on Thursday.
It has also since spread to other countries such as Australia, Cambodia, Germany, Japan, Malaysia, Thailand and the United States.
Singapore has thus far confirmed 13 cases of the virus, with all of them being Chinese nationals from Wuhan.