Despite recent reports of an uptick in COVID-19 cases in Italy, Canadians are still travelling to the destination, while taking the necessary precautions, say a number of Canadian tour operators.
And while there may be some apprehension among certain travellers, operators say that after the situation is resolved, they’re preparing for the inevitable flood of bookings.
Last week, Italian officials reported a dramatic increase in the number of novel coronavirus infections, a number that has since risen to 650 after a 50 per cent spike in cases in a single day. As of Feb. 28, 17 people have died and 11 communities have been quarantined in the country’s northern Lombardy and Veneto regions, according to the BBC, where the normally busy city of Milan (Lombardy’s capital) has fallen quiet.
“There’s more panic than there needs to be”
Talia May, director of marketing and operations for Gateways International, said that as the company mainly operates within the southern regions of Rome and Florence, travellers are generally keeping their Italy bookings.
“There’s haven’t been too many changes – but the season is just ramping up,” May said. “Of course, we’re getting a lot of questions from agents. We have to act like the CDC; we’re suggesting people don’t go to Milan or if they’ve got someone who’s elderly, it’s not a good idea to go somewhere there’s an outbreak.”
In addition to making sure that travellers buy insurance, May said that having the right information is key; in response to agent inquiries, Gateways has reached out to their agent partners with a document containing links to various organizations – including ACTA, TICO, CLIA and the Government of Canada – and their advice on the situation.
“The fact is coronavirus is spreading everywhere – but the flu is much more deadly,” May said. “There’s more panic then there needs to be.
“Bookings may be slower now, but they will ramp up again and then there’s no space.”
“When you sell the world, there are challenges that arise”
During a media breakfast on Feb. 27, just days after an explosion of COVID-19 cases in Italy, Globus’ Managing Director Stéphanie Bishop and Director of Marketing Chris Jones addressed the situation.
While all of the brands’ tours to China (including Hong Kong) have been suspended through April, Bishop said that Globus continues to monitor the situation in all countries where it operates tours, sharing information across its global offices during daily information scrums to update the global team.
“The reality is that when you sell the world, there are challenges that arise,” said Bishop. “I’m very proud that I work for an organization that puts the safety of its guests above all.
“We’ve been through many challenging times,” she continued, citing world events such as SARS, 9/11, the Black Friday market crash and the Balkan War. “There are events that happen from time to time. I feel we can’t take anything lightly – we need to monitor very closely everything that’s happening, which is what Globus is doing – but what is most important is that we need to let calm prevail; let’s not panic…. We don’t have a crystal ball – I can’t tell you what’s going to happen in two weeks or two months from now – but this is top of mind. There’s been more calls to the call centre and we’re dealing with it; it’s a fluid situation.”
Most importantly, she added that the team is avoiding jumping to any conclusions – such as cancelling tours to affected destinations outright – or taking “blanket approaches” due to the fluid nature of the outbreak and its varying impacts on the destinations in which Globus operates.
“Our industry is complex; between airlines, cruise lines and everything else, there’s so many moving parts and when you layer everything on top of one another, you’ve got a machine that is constantly moving,” Bishop said.
“Our business is so intertwined that you don’t want to make a decision today that may not even be a factor in a few weeks.”
“Life is carrying on”
CIT Tours President Diane Pothan told PAX that while clients have the option to rebook their March 2020 Italy departures for a later date in 2020, there’s been no cancellations on the tour operator’s Italy itineraries.
“Life is carrying on in Italy – transfers and excursions will run, hotels are open and restaurants are still serving some of the best food in the world,” Pothan said. “Now, should the situation worsen and services were not operating, then, of course, clients would be refunded.”
While Pothan said that CIT has weathered a “full trifecta of situations” affecting bookings – in addition to COVID-19, she cited the recent strikes by Ontario teachers and ongoing rail disruptions due to solidarity protests in support of BC’s Wet’suwet’en First Nation – the overall impacts have been minimal.
“Our bookings are down, not significantly, but we're ready for when business ramps up again, as it will when this scare is over,” she said.
“I think travel agents should be aware that life is going on - everything is operating,” she added. “Yesterday, one of our suppliers posted pictures of clients enjoying their tours and excursions and a description of life in Rome yesterday; it made me want to get on airplane and go! Incidentally, I am going to Italy next month – Bologna & Venice – and I have no thoughts of cancelling.”
“The world isn’t on fire”
Tania Veca, sales manager at Alitours, told PAX that while the tour operator is watching the situation in Italy “very closely,” noted that the ‘red zone’ at the epicentre of the outbreak comprises just 0.005 per cent of Italy’s territory.
“The world is going mad with coronavirus on their brains, but in truth Italy's famous art cities and popular tourist destinations are at the moment safe,” she said, adding that the destination generates approximately 70 per cent of Alitours’ bookings. “It may seem scary with the media covering this topic 24/7, but the world isn't on fire and neither is Bella Italia.”
For travellers who booked a trip on or before Feb. 22, 2020 with travel dates between Feb. 23 and March 9, Veca said that they have the option of requesting a future travel voucher from Alitours equal to the value of their purchased vacation (otherwise a difference in cost applies), which can then be used until April 30, 2020.
Veca pointed to today’s statement by the Italian National Tourist Board (ENIT), which stated that “all remaining areas outside the red zone are safe and accessible.
“Before generating total panic, definitively blocking all movements of the tourism industry in Italy, and consequently creating serious damage to other sectors, we must understand what is listed by government officials international and domestic, work together, to wait and see past the frenzy in order to get a clear picture,” she said.
“The following days will determine how severely it will impact tourism in the following months, specifically the high season. We remind agents and travelers alike, that most of Italy’s cities and main attractions are operating normally and safely, and therefore welcome everyone to keep Italy on their bucket-list for the moment, and still keep in touch with us for updates."
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