Israel’s Health Ministry said on Sunday it is advising citizens against all non-essential travel to China and advised against any travel to Hubei Province, where an outbreak of the deadly coronavirus had resulted in 56 deaths to date.
But many Israelis had already decided without any government warning that travel to there was too risky. The impact is mainly being felt in business travel, which makes up the biggest share of air travel between the two countries.
“The massive increase in cancellations began in the last few days,” said Aya Magen, CEO of Talma Travel & Tours, which specializes in the business sector. “People are canceling trips or moving the destination to Hong Kong. We’re seeing businesses canceling reservations after because they don’t want to send their employees to China. Others are asking to cut short their stay and return to Israel. It’s not about one or two customers, but masses of them.”
The Health Ministry warning comes amid global efforts to contain the virus, which has also been detected in the United States, France, Canada, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Japan, Vietnam, South Korea and Nepal. Countries such as India have banned all non-essential travel to China.
An extended period of little or no travel could disrupt growing bilateral economic relations. Trade between the two countries totalled $15.6 billion in 2018 according to Israel’s Export Institute, with electrical equipment and machinery dominating transactions. China has also staked out a major role in Israel as an investor and builder of infrastructure projects.
Magen said that all the airlines recognize the problem and have agreed to cancellations or changes without taking any cancellation fees. “We were changing reservations for our customers even before we got approval from the airlines,” she said, adding that the carriers El Al Airlines, Hainan Airlines and Cathay Pacific have all been “very flexible on this issue.”
El Al changed its policy over the weekend, allowing fliers not only to change the date on their reservations without a charge but to cancel them altogether. Chain’s Hainan has adopted the same policy for anyone who had ordered tickets before last Friday.
Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific is allowing no-charge cancellations or changes for flights booked up until February 29. Sichuan Airlines said it was offering full refunds on tickets purchased before January 23.
“There is a lot of concern and questions from customers on the subject and we’re seeing cancellations not only for flights to China but also to Taiwan and Hong Kong,” Yacov Amsalem of Amsalem Tours, a business travel specialist
“Customers of ours who were scheduled to take off [Sunday or Monday] for China have already canceled. Those who need to make a decision on flying later this week are calling and asking for us to look into the option of delaying or canceling,” he said.
Leisure travel is being affected as well. Natour, an Israeli tour packager, said it had cancelled all its organized tourism to China for February and gave its customers the option of a refund or choosing a different destination at a discounted price. Eshet Tours is bringing back a group already in China and canceled another one scheduled to fly there next week.
The Israeli Consumer Council said it regarded the epidemic as a instance of force majeure, which entitles people who bought tickets or tour packages the right to change or cancel because of the health risk of visiting China.
“The consumer council expects tour organizers and airlines to allow all consumers to change or cancel flights to China without requiring a change or cancellation fee,” said Ofer Merom, its director.
Incoming tourism from China – a small but rapidly growing segment of the industry – is also going to be affected after China on Saturday banned its citizens from booking overseas tours and from purchasing overseas flights and hotel packages.
Last year, the number of the Chinese tourists visiting Israel soared 51% to 144,400.
“[On Sunday] groups were arriving in Israel, but tour organizers are getting a lot of cancellations and it’s real chaos,” said Yossi Fattal, director of the Israel Incoming Tour Operators Association.
He said that at this time of the year, about 3,000 tourists from China come to Israel. Although few other visitors come to Israel during the winter months after Christmas, it’s peak season for Chinese travelers because of the Chinese New Year holiday.
“The cancellations are not just affecting us but also restaurants, tourist attractions and hotels. We are waiting to see how they respond. I hope they don’t demand cancellation fees,” said Fattal.