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Coronavirus COVID-19: A Luxury Travel Agent’s Perspective

I have received a number of emails from both clients and readers about my thoughts on the novel coronavirus, now officially named COVID-19. Rather than writing individual emails I thought it best to write an article answering all of them in one place.

Over the past weeks, the No. 1 topic…and No. 1 headache…has been the novel coronavirus. To say it has caused significant disruptions in the travel industry would be an understatement. Similarly, to say it has caused upset, anxiety, frustration and disappointment within the traveling public would be an even greater understatement…but, importantly, only for some.

Before I discuss the effect on travel and travel planning, first let’s get some perspective:

  • This is a new virus and at present there are no vaccines or antivirus  medications, though at least one is showing promise. 
  • For those with compromised immune systems or underlying illnesses this virus can be very serious or fatal.
  • For the vast majority of people that have contracted the virus they are either asymptomatic (most not even knowing they are infected) or have very mild symptoms.
  • For the vast majority of serious or fatal cases the unfortunate outcomes are as much related to unavailable or improper treatment, including such simple things as proper hydration.
  • According to the February 18, 2020 New York Times Opinion piece, there have been 72,869 cases and 1,873 deaths; but as noted above most of those deaths are associated with other conditions and there are certainly many more cases of non-fatal infections that have gone unreported…which make the actual morbidity rate of the virus much lower than reported.
  • According to the same article the alleged huge spike in cases is a result of China redefining who has the virus to include anyone with the symptoms of coughing, fever and/or difficulty breathing even if they have tested negative for the virus.  
  • As of the date of this article, there less than 50 confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States and about 1,000 worldwide other than China (and most of those are in South Korea). 
  • As of the date of this article, according to the Centers for Disease Control‘s weekly report there have been over 29,000,000 cases of the flu, 28,000 hospitalization and 16,000 deaths from the flu, just in the United States. 
  • The World Health Organization states that the flu infects over 5,000,000 severe cases with 650,000 deaths annually worldwide.
  • It is not known of the COVID-19 will spread or die off as the flu virus does seasonally.
  • Because the information is so new and incomplete it is not possible to have valid statistics as to which is more serious: COVID-19 or flu.
OK, so with that information, we need to meld in the fact that the hysteria over the woman on the Holland America Westerdam that Malaysia initially said had the COVID-19 virus (which spread, ‘er um, virally spread through the media) ultimately was found not to have it and the Japanese authorities who determined how the Diamond Princess was kinda-sorta maybe quarantining the passengers made a huge debacle of same and created a worse situation with cross-contamination everywhere.
Hence there is a balance between biology, medicine, statistics, and emotion…and each of these, as noted above, cannot be fully quantified or their validity vouched for just yet.
Now, the BIG question: What does all this mean for travel, and especially cruise travel, in the near and long term?
The short answer is: I don’t know!  That’s right a definitive “Dunno“! 
And that is because of the combination of the current lack of knowledge, misinformation and what I will call “hysteria” (though that is probably a bit of an overstatement). More specifically, the World Health Organization is focused on containing the virus and keeping it from becoming a pandemic (or effecting more people than normal on a worldwide basis) and, thus, national and local governments are reacting on a wide variety of bases from measured and scientific to emotional and overreactive. Thus nobody (not airlines, tour operators, cruise lines, etc.) can know in advance what is going to trigger what governmental action and whether it is based rationally, politically or emotionally.
That is why, over the past month, cruise lines have put plans in place that they felt were responsive to conditions and governmental authorities…and then found that they were no longer valid; sometimes then becoming valid again. This was the case of Vietnam consenting to the Seabourn Ovation making port calls and then deciding it was reconsidering same and then deciding, after days floating at sea, that they would permit them.  And then it all went to heck when it was improperly claimed a passenger on the Westerdam has somehow contracted COVID-19 when, in fact, she had not. 
In response all the cruise lines decided to simply leave Asia entirely and probably for all of 2020 while tightening restrictions on who can board their ships (nobody with recent contacts with China, those having a fever, etc.) and head down to Australia and New Zealand before heading through Indonesia, through Arabia and up into the Mediterranean where all is quiet…until it wasn’t! 
As of this morning Northern Italy has 10 towns of 50,000+ residents on lockdown after 227 cases of COVID-19 appeared with 101 people hospitalized and two days of Venice’s famous Carnival cancelled and Iran says 47 have been discovered with 12 deaths. (Meanwhile back in Asia, South Korea is reporting over 800 cases.)
So what does this mean for people on cruises in Australia in a month’s time: I just don’t know. 
How about those spending time in Bali? Not a clue. 
The Western Mediterranean exclusive of Italy? No crystal ball here.
Cruises touching Italy? Can’t really say.
HOWEVER, I can make the following observations and couple them with my unofficial and unregulated crystal ball:
  • As with SARS, Bird Flu, MERS, Ebola and others, a rational, systematic and scientifically based approach will be taken and it will be taken with the next month or so.
  • This better and more educated approach will quiet many of the concerns and emotional responses
  • Medical treatments, including anti-virals, will be available within a few months
  • Those that educate themselves will be more likely to travel then those that don’t.
  • Perspective of contracting the flu or some other disease versus COVID-19 will become normalized
  • The lock-down approach will be eliminated (save, probably, China) as being ineffective and unwarranted considering the costs and the limited benefits.
In the meantime, and not just because my business is creating travel experiences, I would suggest that the idea of not making plans because something might happen is the least productive approach one can take and, further, itis one that penalizes your mental health because you are trapping yourself when there is, in fact, no trap.  (I mean there are significant numbers of deaths from falling in the shower, no less bathtubs, and you don’t hesitate to shower everyday.)
But I would plan your travel wisely, not as if there is nothing going on. In that light I suggest:
  • Work with responsible (both ethically and financially) travel professionals. Trying to get answers, results and changes on your own can be far more daunting than you might think and a travel professional that is merely concerned about keeping one commission may not be looking at your long-term best interests or be sufficiently motivated to put the hours of time in that are necessary.
  • Work with responsible (both ethically and financially) tour operators and cruise lines. They are in it for the long-haul and want to  keep you as a client, and not just for one trip.  Their solutions may change and may not be perfect, but they are really working hard to make your travel plans happen and, if they cannot, that they to provide you with a solid alternative…and then another one when unexpectedly a government(s) changes its (their) position(s). 
  • Possibly put those less expensive non-cancellable hotels and airline tickets on hold. The premium paid to allow you to voluntarily cancel your reservations might just give you some flexibility and piece of mind.
  • Decide if you are traveling for a particular destination, a cruise experience or to just get away so that you can keep better focus on what the effect of a change is really going to mean to you (rather than the theoretical that “everything” is now ruined).
  • Don’t assume travel insurance is going to cover you. Fear of a problem is not a covered loss. There are exclusions for known conditions (coronavirus is now known). Unless you purchase additional insurance coverages changes in ports are generally not a covered loss. Cancel for any reason coverage, though expensive, may be something to consider. 
  • Be flexible.
  • Keep perspective
  • Most importantly:  Breathe.

Yup; just breathe. We don’t know what will be happening in two weeks, no less two months or longer. Since there is no way to predict what will be happening…even though each day we think everything has settled out…and then it isn’t…worrying about “What if’s” doesn’t really help your situation or your mental health. I know. I know. Easier said than done, but we have to start somewhere.

So don’t put off your vacation planning, but rather keep those pre-penalty cancellation dates in mind. Would I consider an Asia trip for 2020? Probably (OK, definitely for now) not. But the reality is that the vast majority of you weren’t considering one to begin with. And, barring something truly unforeseen, the travel chaos related to Asia and cruise itineraries of the past two months should well and truly settle down in less than next thirty days.

If you have any questions be sure to speak with your health professional first. And if you have any travel questions give me a call, drop me an email or send me a Facebook message!

US: (877) 2GO-LUXURY (877-246-5898)
UK: 020 8133 3450
AUS: (07) 3102 4685
Everywhere Else: +1 530 562 9232 

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