From its perch as one of the most popular countries in the world, overnight Italy has become the poster child the whole world is watching as the coronavirus stealthily arrived through its northern gateway in Milan earlier this week.
According to Worldometer, Italy now has 888 cases of coronavirus, the third most worldwide behind China and South Korea. Italy’s tourism federation, Assoturismo, said up to 90% of hotel and travel agency bookings had been canceled in Rome and up to 80% in Sicily for March.
Today, however, Milan’s most recognized landmark, the Duomo (cathedral), was reopened. “Most of the measures taken in the past week by local authorities were precautionary and, after a few days of media frenzy that caused a general jump-the-gun sense of panic among residents and visitors, life is now going back to normal,” said Nada Vergili of Nada’s Italy.
Unwilling to panic, American travel professionals are relying on perspective, loyal and proactive suppliers, and the pre-high season timing of coronavirus incidents to tamper down fears before allowing the news to throw the economy into a tailspin.
Experienced and respected travel suppliers take a salient view: “The only official pandemic we have right now is a fear pandemic,” said Karen La Rosa, of La Rosa Works Sicily Tours and Travel Works. Ground operators are taking steps to curtail fear, and circulate accurate information on regional levels.
The toughest groups to advise are those departing next month. To ease the burden on travelers, Steve Perillo, CEO at Perillo Tours said, “Our insurance carrier doesn’t cover canceling for ‘fear of getting sick’ – so the penalties still stand. However, we’re offering our clients the chance to rebook anytime in the next year – and most are accepting that.”
All tours are still departing at Perillo Tours: “We’re telling people traveling after April 1 that we’ll freeze their cancellation penalties to where they are today. So, they can hang on and see what happens without increased financial risk,” said Steve Perillo.
“My agency in Sicily (established and respected) is taking a leadership role to call heads of other agencies together to see what they can do. The ripple effect is so awful,” offered La Rosa.
“Three cases were reported in Sicily; two are already healed and one was a false positive. From this, the tourism industry there and their fragile economy will suffer,” says La Rosa. About 13% of Italy’s economy relies on tourism. “Fortunately for Sicily, the virus doesn’t do well in the warmth.”
Margot Cushing, independent travel consultant and Italy specialist, at FROSCH, in New York, told Travel Market Report that her clients are taking a wait-and-see attitude. “Luckily this flu did not begin during peak season … I have several bookings for April and it is up to these clients to decide if they want to go. I think the virus will not be an issue.”
To those clients who are simply worried and asking for advice, La Rosa tells them to wait. “Most hotels have cancellation policies that are within a month so we have time before we need to cancel future bookings.”
“I’m not saying people shouldn’t be concerned about the coronavirus, but it shouldn’t be to the point of disrupting their lives and travel plans. In my opinion, educating yourself, researching, and referencing official government websites (CDC, Department of State, the country’s department of health, etc.) is the best plan of action before making any abrupt decision to cancel your 2020 travel plans at this point,” adds Vergili.
Jean-Francois Ferret, CEO of the 520-member Small Luxury Hotels of the World, said: “While the power to change cancellation policies for each of our independent hotels does not lie with us, we are proactively encouraging our member hotels to offer guests flexibility wherever feasible.”
Alitalia targeted high-risk passengers from China immediately, saying: “… the airline is not required to accept passengers from the People's Republic of China who have not passed the ‘quarantine period’ of 14 days outside the country at risk, or who, after the quarantine period, present signs or symptoms that suggest a state of ill health and who, at that time, are unable to produce medical certification attesting that these signs or symptoms of disease are not attributable to those of the current disease of the lungs caused by the coronavirus (COVID-19).”
But Italy is not alone: At least 11 European countries now have confirmed cases of coronavirus and the 15th confirmed U.S. coronavirus patient is in serious condition.
Close to the front line of public perspective, Cushing admits, “It is not over yet and we will see the results on our industry closer to high season”; while La Rosa said, “Scary and sneaky as this new virus is, fear is irrational. I hope level heads return soon and this will become yesterday’s news quickly. “