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With the spread of Coronavirus (COVID-19) continuing to lead headlines throughout the world, I have been asked by friends/family/readers whether I think travel to Asia at the moment is safe. My answer so far has been that statistically it is probably reasonably safe, but that does not mean that travel right now is necessarily sensible.
Gilbert (who is always worth reading) over at GodSaveThePoints made the argument a few days ago that the chances of contracting COVID-19 while travelling in most parts of Asia is extremely low and that the chances of death are much smaller still.
I don’t entirely agree with the specifics of his analysis, because it is largely based on static data when this is a rapidly evolving situation. In fact, as the virus has now got a foothold in Italy, Iran and elsewhere, the question must really be widened to include all affected regions. That said – I do agree with Gil’s main point, which is that if you are reasonably fit and healthy, the chances of becoming seriously ill from COVID-19 while travelling are currently still statistically low.
My bigger concern isn’t whether travel is safe, but whether it is sensible
What I mean by that is that if you decide the risk of infection is tolerably low, the steps that businesses and governments are taking to combat the spread of COVID-19 could still lead to your trip being negatively affected. As we saw yesterday in Tenerife, just one suspected case led to hundreds of people in the same hotel being placed under quarantine conditions.
Small numbers of potential cases are now popping up across Europe (Spain, Switzerland, Sicily, Croatia, etc). Given how infectious the virus seems to be and how interconnected the world (and particularly Europe) is, it would be remarkable if that trend does not continue in the coming days. All the evidence so far suggests that strict quarantines are the favoured option of governments dealing with suspected cases of COVID-19 – and airports, borders, etc, are precisely the places that are going to become (or already are) under intense scrutiny.
My point is that the chances of getting caught up in a quarantine (which could last for 14 days) when travelling are much higher than your chances of contracting the virus itself. How many people can realistically take two unplanned weeks away from their family, work and other commitments without it having a big negative impact on their life?
Even if you are happy to accept those risks, there’s still the question of whether it would be enjoyable to visit somewhere right now if the cultural events have been cancelled, the streets are empty, and the bars are shut? Going next year instead might be a lot more fun.
Why I don’t like my own argument
The above is my genuine assessment of the current situation, but I am deeply uncomfortable with the conclusions.
Tourism is a hugely important part of the economy of many countries and provides livelihoods for millions of people. I hate the idea that good businesses might go bust and people will lose their jobs due to tourists and business travellers not visiting.
It is always important to consider the wider context when discussing ‘risk’ – scaremongering is despicable and has real world consequences. Unfortunately, it really does now seem likely that COVID-19 is going to be a significant public health challenge for at least some countries outside of China (where it already is) and the travel industry will be at the sharp end of that.
What can be done?
Rather than giving up on travel plans altogether (including to currently affected regions), I think there is a more moderate way forward – and it doesn’t involve anything hugely complicated. Consider things like:
- Booking refundable rates for accommodation. That gives you time to see how things develop, without risking either your money, or your holiday. In fact, refundable rates might be a good idea at any time.
- Similarly, using points/miles (perhaps even buying them) to book flights can be an excellent way of effectively booking a refundable flight without the massive price tags that refundable cash tickets usually involve. Most miles/points bookings can be cancelled (with the points/miles returned to your account) for a very modest cancellation fee.
- Double check your travel insurance. The devil is in the detail, so make sure you are 100% certain about what is covered and in what specific circumstances. It might be a good time to consider paying more for something more comprehensive and/or with better customer service.
- Keep a close eye on government travel advice, which could change rapidly over the next few weeks.
- If you are travelling, follow the World Health Organisation advice on how to help keep yourself and others healthy.
The coming weeks could well be challenging for travellers, and even more so for those who work in the industry. Delays due to things like health screening at airports are to be expected, and more profound disruption is possible. Ensure that you have a contingency plan (particularly things like carrying extra medication if you have an existing condition) just in case you do find yourself in a quarantine situation.
As always, try to be patient and kind when travelling – not least if things get stressful!