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A man wears a masks as a precaution at Pearson International Airport in Toronto on Jan. 25, 2020.

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

With a highly visible minority of travellers sporting surgical masks, and many airline and security personnel doing likewise, the scene at Toronto Pearson International Airport recalls the early days of the 2003 SARS outbreak.

This despite Government of Canada assurances that as of Jan. 27, “the overall risk of the novel coronavirus to Canadian travellers and to Canada remains low."

The profusion of masks has much to do with memories of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), says Frederic Dimanche, director of the Ted Rogers School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Ryerson University in Toronto. The outbreak, which infected 257 people in Ontario, “had a significant impact not just on the travel industry, but also on people’s minds. Now, with the coronavirus, here’s another threat coming from another viral respiratory disease originating in China. People see it as the same story happening again.”

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The good news, Dimanche adds, is that the travel industry is reacting much more quickly and efficiently than it did in 2003. “They’ve learned from what happened and are taking measures from the very beginning to make people feel more comfortable.”

Major players offering refunds

A wide range of airlines, hotel chains and tour operators have announced “goodwill policies” that allow travellers to cancel or change bookings related to China free of charge.

On Jan. 26, Air Canada announced that passengers who recently booked travel to Beijing Capital International Airport, Shanghai Pudong International Airport and Wuhan Tianhe International Airport can change their flights to another date or destination free of charge (subject to date restrictions and availability). This followed similar moves by other major carriers such as Air China, Cathay Pacific and Qantas Airways, all of which announced free refunds for journeys to and from mainland China. Several multinational hotel chains, including InterContinental Hotels and Hyatt Hotels, are also allowing free cancellations and date changes at hundreds of properties across China.

Canadian tour operators are following suit. On Jan. 24, many received an official notice from China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism requesting that they suspend services to China until further notice. China has also ordered all domestic agencies to suspend sales of domestic and international tours.

Toronto-based G Adventures, for its part, has cancelled all tours to China through Feb. 29, with travellers who have already booked having the option to postpone, transfer to an alternative tour or cancel and receive a full refund. “The safety and well-being of our travellers continues to be our top priority, and our local team will continue to monitor the situation and update travellers and agents on any changes to future departures,” spokesman Tim Chan said.

Ottawa recommends avoiding non-essential travel

Given the safety and security risks associated with measures being taken by Chinese authorities to contain the virus – public transportation shutdowns, event cancellations and strict travel restrictions that could change quickly – the Government of Canada recommended that Canadians avoid non-essential travel to the central Chinese region of Hubei province as of Jan. 28. Likewise, Chinese authorities have asked the public to avoid all non-essential travel to and from the city of Wuhan.

As of Jan. 24, the World Health Organization advised that “measures to limit the risk of exportation or importation of the disease should be implemented, without unnecessary restrictions of international traffic.”

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This balancing act “is all about risk management,” Dimanche says. “Nobody wants to be held accountable if the outbreak gets worse. After all, there's a precedent for this.”

If you go

With the outbreak coinciding with the Lunar New Year, one of China’s busiest travel seasons, the risk of visitors getting sick increases, Dimanche points out, adding that the severe measures taken by Chinese authorities highlight the seriousness of the situation. “Travellers must take responsibility for their decisions to go to China by being informed about the situation as it evolves, and checking advisories from the Canadian and Chinese governments,” he says.

As part of its “avoid non-essential travel” recommendation, the federal government is highlighting health and travel precautions such as extra attentiveness to messages and instructions at airports, expecting increased health measures at airports throughout China, avoiding high-risk areas such as farms and live animal markets and signing up with the Registration of Canadians Abroad service in case of emergencies.

Cancel-for-any-reason-insurance on the upswing

Another sign of public skittishness over the virus – a recent uptick in cancel-for-any-reason-insurance bookings. According to Stan Sandberg, co-founder of TravelInsurance.com, average daily Cancel For Any Reason (CFAR) bookings have “nearly doubled” since Jan. 22, with close to 60 per cent of purchasers listing their primary destination as China or Southeast Asia.

Standard trip-cancellation policies will not provide reimbursement to travellers who cancel owing to outbreak concerns or health alerts from authorities, Sandberg explains, adding that policies with an added CFAR upgrade will provide this coverage, subject to significant premium increases and various terms and conditions.

Dimanche, for his part, says travellers should base their decisions on the levels of risk they can tolerate. “Some of us are risk-takers and some of us or not. If you’re not comfortable with the level of risk, cancelling or rescheduling might make sense. If you are comfortable with the risks, you still have to understand that this is a public health issue that could affect millions of people all over the world. It's not just about you and your trip.”

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