Israelis Told to Avoid Far East as Coronavirus Fears Grow

El Al Airlines and cruise operators report cancellations as Health Ministry expands travel warnings

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Passengers leave LAX after arriving from Shanghai, China, California, U.S., January 26, 2020.
Passengers leave LAX after arriving from Shanghai, China, California, U.S., January 26, 2020. Credit: RINGO CHIU/ REUTERS

Israel’s tourism industry is continuing to feel the impact of the new coronavirus, with travelers starting to shun not just China but large part of East Asia. Cruise operators report some cancellations, but on the other hand, Israel may pick up some incoming cruise business originally destined for the Far East.

The Health Ministry on Sunday expanded the list of travel destinations it recommended avoiding to include Hong Kong, Japan, Macao, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam. It follows a warning on travel to China issued at the start of the month, in addition to requiring Israelis returning from China to quarantine themselves for 14 days.

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As of Sunday, the death toll from the virus had reached 908, China’s National Health Commission said Monday. That surpasses the toll from the 2002-3 SARS epidemic. The number of confirmed infections in the country rose to 40,171. The virus has spread to at least 27 countries and territories, according to a Reuters count based on official reports, infecting more than 330 people. Two deaths have been reported outside mainland China.

The ministry warning comes as many local travel agents said that since last week many customers have postponed or canceled reservations to the Far East in the coming period. Because there had been no warning issued by any government body until now, people canceling or delaying flights had to pay a costly fee.

The extent of the cancellations and delays can be seen in the number of people flying El Al Airlines this week to Hong Kong and the carrier’s cancellation of its second scheduled weekly flight this week. El Al suspended flights to China on January 30 for at least two months, but has continued flying to Hong Kong.

El Al said that for now it had no plans to suspend flights to Tokyo or Bangkok, the latter a very profitable route that it services alone. Airline sources said it saw no reason to as long as other international carriers were suspending their flights to the destination.

As a result, those who do want to delay or cancel reservations will have to pay the full fee. The exception is Hong Kong, where El Al said passenger buying tickets by February 29 can cancel without a charge.

Meanwhile, it’s not only airlines that are suspending flights and suffering a wave of cancellations. The global cruise is also feeling the pinch of the new coronavirus. Like others, Israelis are canceling reservations for trips to Hong Kong and Japan.

Officials check Vietnamese citizens repatriated from Wuhan, at the Van Don airport in Vietnam, February 10, 2020.Credit: AFP

Siman Ovadia, CEO of the Cruise Tour agency, said that two groups that had booked cruises to the Philippines and Vietnam has asked to cancel.

“These are areas that haven’t yet been deemed problematic, but after they called me and expressed their concerns, we decided to let them cancel even though the cruise itself is still on and the cruise operators changed the departure port from Hong Kong to Singapore,” Ovadia said.

He said there haven’t been mass cancellations, only isolated incidents. In any case, it’s not peak cruise season, which is the spring, summer and fall. “In the winter fewer people take cruises than in the summer, because they depart from distant places, not from Europe, and the flight is expensive,” said Ovadia.

Tali Noy, Israel country manager for Swiss-based MSC Cruise Israel, said she wasn’t concerned, about the impact of the virus.

“The level of reservations for Europe and the United States hasn’t changed. We launched a TV campaign this week in the belief that things are as usual, otherwise we wouldn’t have wasted the money,” she said.

“It’s clear that generally speaking people aren’t traveling to the Far East, either on cruises or by air. One of our ships, which was cruising in the Far East, was supposed to go by China but it was decided to remove it from the area where the virus is, so we moved forward its arrival to the area of Saudi Arabia. It was no big deal,” she added.

It’s too early to tell how cancellations of Asian cruises will affect Israeli tourism overall, but the domestic industry could see a silver lining in the form of cruises being rerouted for stops in Israeli ports, as operators opt to steer clear of the Far East.

Miami-based Norwegian Cruise Line said it was canceling its entire Asian cruise season, from April to December. The company has yet to say where its Norwegian Spirit, which was scheduled to take the routes, will be used instead.

However, industry sources said it may stay in the Mediterranean, where it is now, and visit Turkey, Cyprus and Israel. “The company needs to find a substitute for destinations like China, Hong Kong and Japan, and that’s not so easy,” said one industry source, who asked not to be named.

The fate of the Diamond Princess may give holiday makers second thoughts. The cruise ship, with 3,700 people on board, has been quarantined off the coast of Yokohama, near Tokyo, since last Tuesday, after a former passenger tested positive for the coronavirus. So far, 135 passengers have tested positive for the virus.

“At the moment, all the cruise ships that were due to visit Israel this winter are coming as scheduled, but we don’t yet know if they’ll arrive fully booked as expected or if there will be a wave of cancellations. No one wants to be stuck on board a ship with thousands of people. I feel bad for the cruise operators,” he said.

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