UPDATE: Since this story was published, American, Delta, and United Airlines have suspended all flights between the United States and mainland China. Service is expected to resume in late March. In addition, the U.S. Department of State has issued a travel advisory, warning Americans not to travel to China because of the growing health threat.
Maureen Flynn, a Brooklyn-based travel agent, has known about the coronavirus since it was first reported in China, but she would still travel there today. “I would need more information before I was overly concerned,” she said.
Flynn owns Parallel Meridian Travel, and she was in China with a group of Chinese-American travel professionals back in November when she first heard about the virus through her companions. At the time, she says there were only a few cases, and the flurry surrounding the virus had not yet taken off. “The news seems a little bit hysterical,” she says of current coverage.
As the CDC issues its highest level travel warning and China restricts citizen tour groups from leaving the country, US travel companies still appear to be operating “business as usual.”
The death toll for the pneumatic respiratory virus in China has now reached 106, with about 4,515 confirmed cases, The New York Times reported Tuesday. Worries about the speed with which the virus is spreading have led Chinese officials to take measures to prevent further infections, including flight cancelations, travel bans in Hubei province, and tight traffic restrictions in the city of Wuhan, where the virus is thought to have originated. Over the weekend, US government officials even ordered employees to evacuate the US embassy in Wuhan.
But the media melee and government cautions have not appeared to impact US travel agencies or, according to the agencies, their clients who are traveling to China. At least not yet.
Flynn is hesitant to cancel or alter her customers’ future itineraries. She has three groups traveling to China in 2020 starting in the late spring and continuing on through the fall. Flynn says she’s closely monitoring the situation and has been fielding calls from clients, but hasn’t canceled any plans yet—even the ones that include visits to Wuhan.
Still, the more widely the media reports on the coronavirus, the more calls Flynn gets. Her clients have questions and concerns, but still seem to want to go. “At this point, everybody is just monitoring what is going on, and it’s kind of a wait and see thing,” she says. “It’s in New York right now, so do you close down New York? No.”
While no cases in New York have been confirmed yet, New York City officials are expecting the virus to hit the metro area and are preparing for its appearance. This plan involves screening airport arrivals from China at JFK International Airport, establishing transport protocols for those who might have contracted the virus, and training all city health providers to identify symptoms, according to ABC7NY. So far, six New York patients are still waiting for test results while three other suspected cases have tested negative for the virus, according to NYC Patch. “With the best emergency response teams in the nation, New York City stands ready to respond to any potential cases of the coronavirus,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a press conference on Friday.
Skyland World Travel, an agency based in Hackettstown, NJ, is also still operating trips to China and has clients who are currently in China, says travel agent Elsa Todd. Yet, while Skyland has not canceled or postponed any China travel for its own clients, the company has fielded more phone calls from individuals who booked their own trips and now want advice from professionals on canceling or changing itineraries, Todd says.
Clients of Flight Centre Travel Group, headquartered in Australia but with offices all over, seem unruffled as well. The company has not experienced any cancelations or significant material changes to itineraries and plans, according to a company spokesperson “That could, of course, change if the situation changes,” says Alysa McKenna, Director of Corporate Communications at Flight Centre Travel. Like other agencies and companies, the company is monitoring the situation.
A spokesman for BlueOrange Travel in Manhattan said that news surrounding the coronavirus was not affecting the company’s business at all. While it’s unclear whether the company is currently operating trips to China, its website calls the company “the top business travel agency for China and Asia.”
Maureen Flynn explained that China is a big “bucket list” item for many travelers, and planning a group trip there can be a large commitment. This might explain why canceling a future trip might feel extreme, despite current circumstances. “It’s like a wedding day. You’re planning it and putting it together, and then you’ve booked it. And once you’ve booked things, it’s yours,” Flynn says.
Forbes reported Monday that it is too early to know whether the coronavirus will seriously impact the tourism industry in China this year, but generally, “health disruptions have a reasonably fast rebound.” Clearly, US tour companies seem to be following this line of thinking. For now, they’re watching and waiting to see what happens.