By Harry Kemble and Juliet Dennis
A leading travel agent has urged cruise lines, airlines and operators to waive cancellation fees and defer requests for balance payments over the coronavirus outbreak to avoid “mass cancellations”.
Travel Village Group chief executive Phil Nuttall made the plea as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases passed 20,000 and the number of deaths reached more than 420. This week, the Foreign Office urged all 30,000 Britons to leave China.
Operators such as G Adventures and Intrepid Travel have extended cancellations for trips to China until the end of March. But Nuttall said clients booked to go after March were asking to cancel. “It is an unprecedented situation, so we must bend the rules,” he said. “I encourage operators to waive cancellation charges for the moment, [and allow] customer bookings to stay live [by not asking for] the full balance. We want to protect the consumer, tourism and the operators, so we do not have mass cancellations.”
Customers travelling in May and beyond are being asked to settle balances even though itineraries could change if the Foreign Office continues to advise against all but essential travel to China.
Nuttall said some customers had been charged a fee to change their flights after cruise lines cancelled or changed itineraries.
The Specialist Travel Association’s (Aito) head of commercial, Bharat Gadhoke, agreed, saying: “Operators need cooperation from airlines and more options for customers.”
Experience Travel Group negotiated with an airline to postpone a trip to Vietnam and avoid a cancellation fee following a client’s concerns. Managing director Sam Clark said: “If all airlines could take this approach it would be helpful.”
Operators said bookings for China had fallen but other destinations in Asia appeared to be holding up.
Links Travel & Tours general manager David Higgins said: “People are naturally more cautious about travel to Asia, but these are bucket-list destinations people still want to visit.”
An InsideJapan spokesman said: “The question around the virus and Japan does crop up more often.”
Wendy Wu, founder of Wendy Wu Tours, said the latest medical updates suggested the spread of the virus could peak around February 8 and then slow down.