Almost 85,000 people around the world are now infected with the coronavirus, and the death toll has exceeded 2,700. People are understandably fearful of travelling overseas. Flight Centre, the travel agency, expects the crisis to cost it between $70 million to $240 million. It is true that fewer people are travelling now. Coronavirus is the biggest disruption to world tourism since September 11. The question, of course, is – is it safe to travel at the moment?
Australia has issued a ‘do not travel alert’ for China – the highest warning level possible – and it is also advising travellers to take a high degree of caution when visiting a number of other impacted countries including South Korea, Japan, Thailand and Hong Kong. It is asking people to reconsider the need to travel to Iran. Before booking any trip you should definitely visit the Australian Smart Traveller website and read and follow the government’s advice.
Senior Tourism Lecturer at University of Technology Sydney, David Bierman, says it is still safe to travel, even go on cruises, provided you get the right advice and take precautions. He wrote a great piece recently for The Conversation website.
The World Health Organisation has issued this advice to all individuals:
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth – if your hands touch a surface contaminated by the virus, this could transfer it into your body
- Wash your hands – soap or hand gel can kill the virus
- Cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing – ideally with a tissue – and wash your hands afterwards, to prevent the virus spreading
- Don't get too close to people coughing, sneezing or with a fever – they can propel small droplets containing the virus into the air – ideally, keep 1m (3ft) away.
The effectiveness of facemasks is scientifically questionable as they are very thin and become moist quickly. A better defence is increased handwashing and remember, get into the habit of not touching your face ahead of the winter cold/flu season. This good habit will protect you in years to come from colds and flus. Make sure your handwashing is frequent and vigorous.
How safe is air travel?
Basically you have to ask yourself the question, how likely is it that someone from an area with a high incidence of coronavirus will be seated near you. There have been less than 20 cases in Australia, and this country has almost 25 million people so I’d say the odds of not picking up corona on a flight from Noosa to Newcastle are on your side!
When it comes to global outbreaks of colds and flu, air travel is usually how these things spread from country to country. But Australia has stopped travel to and from China, where there are 80,000 corona cases. It is not allowing visitors from China, around 200,000 students and tourists remain shut out. This is having a huge impact on the economy, particularly the education and tourism sectors.
I predict that the government will relax travel restrictions in coming weeks, once state government health departments are well prepared for the illness to arrive. In China around 1 to 3 per cent of the population has died or become critically ill, but in Italy, which is a wealthier country, this rate is less than 0.5 per cent. I am not trivialising this rate or even personally advocating that the government relax border restrictions – I am just forecasting that this is likely to happen, so be prepared. Have a read on the blog I wrote, ‘How to prepare for a pandemic’.
How safe is cruising?
More than 600 cases of coronavirus were diagnosed on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship and two elderly patients died. Australia evacuated all its citizens from the ship, and they are now in quarantine in the Northern Territory.
Another cruise ship, Holland America's Westerdam, was turned away from several Asian countries over coronavirus fears before being allowed to dock in Cambodia on February 14. No cases of coronavirus were first detected but one of its passengers tested positive for the coronavirus during a stopover in Malaysia the following day.
Senior Tourism Lecturer at University of Technology Sydney, David Bierman reminds us that cruise ship operators have extensive experience in dealing with the challenge of containing disease outbreaks. The aviation and cruising industry has the strictest health and safety controls of any tourism industry sector.
Dr Bierman says the International Maritime Organisation has had a convention in place since 1914 known as Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) and updated versions include thorough cleaning of cabins and public areas of a ship and food hygiene. It is standard practice in cruising to isolate passengers when a passenger is identified with an on-board illness. The difficulty with COVID-19 is that it may take up to 14 days or even longer for coronavirus symptoms to appear. Again the question you need to ask yourself is: what is the likelihood of an infected person being on your ship? For example, if you’re cruising from Melbourne to New Zealand next week consider that there have been less than 20 cases in Australia and we have a population of 25 million. I have not heard of any cases of corona in New Zealand. I would say the odds of not getting corona are in your favour, however I would be more cautious if I had a cruise coming up in Italy in a few weeks. Keep checking Smart Traveller website.
What happens if you cancel your trip?
Less than half of all travel insurers cover cancellation as a result of a pandemic or epidemic, but travellers who booked their trips before the announcement of the epidemic should be able to get a refund because the virus was then an ‘unknown event’.
Allianz, for example, says the virus became known on January 22 for travel to China. Cover More Travel Insurance, which issues more than 80 per cent of travel insurance policies in Australia, is using the date of January 23 for its policies. However if you booked after January 23, you may find it much harder to get a refund for travel. You may need to get some professional advice, perhaps from a lawyer, or your state’s consumer protection agency.
Think about travelling within Australia
The corona situation seems to be changing daily. If you are looking at taking a holiday, think about travelling within Australia. So many coastal towns in eastern Australia were impacted by the bushfires. They would love to see you and your dollars. There are so many beautiful little towns from Lakes Entrance to Yamba in northern New South Wales along our eastern seaboard so why not visit? When was the last time you got on a boogie board or walked in a national park? Personally I think there has never been a better time to explore our own backyard – Australia! So if you are planning a trip, travel safe and have fun!