Tourism industry leaders have called on businesses to show flexibility on cancellations as the coronavirus crisis hits bookings to Britain from China.

VisitBritain director of strategy and communications Patricia Yates told the UKinbound association’s convention in Bristol: “Forward bookings [from China] don’t look good.”

Fiona Pollard, VisitEngland board member and chair of the Roman Baths Foundation in Bath, said the epidemic was “a concern”, insisting: “The onus is on all of us to act responsibly, to not push cancellation charges and to be as supportive as we can.”

Pollard said: “At least it’s a relatively quiet time [of year]. About 15% of Chinese bookings [to the UK] are in January-March.”

Yates told the convention: “We get a daily update on the latest health information which enables us to send a daily bulletin to the industry. The structures are working well.

“Other countries have closed their borders [to Chinese visitors], we haven’t.”

Alistair Handyside, chair of the South West Tourism Alliance, said: “I feel for the people affected by this.

“A lot of people are affected and there will be long-term effects for some businesses. We should do everything we can to help them.”

UKinbound chief executive Joss Croft revealed the association is collating information on flexible cancellation policies to encourage the practice.

He argued: “We know with China that there will be massive pent up demand – people won’t spend their [holiday] money, they will save it.”

Yates suggested comparing the coronavirus crisis with the SARS outbreak [in 2003] “does not tell you much”, arguing: “Chinese visitor numbers then were low.” But she said: “Bookings did come back after SARS.”

Pollard agreed, saying: “At this stage SARS was much more serious and we were back to normal business within about three months.”

Yates added: “China is the world’s biggest outbound market, but 70% of our visitors come from the EU and we see the strongest growth at the moment from the American market.”

UKinbound represents 400-plus inbound tour operators, service and accommodation providers, attractions and destination management organisations.