The Travel Advisor: Uncovering the China syndrome

Three of the largest US airlines – Delta, American and United – have canceled more flights between the United States and China because of concerns about the spread of coronavirus.

Airport staff check the tickets of passengers of a China Southern Airlines flight to Guangzhou, China, at I Gusti Ngurah Rai International Airport, Bali, Indonesia. (photo credit: ANTARA FOTO/FIKRI YUSUF/REUTERS)
Airport staff check the tickets of passengers of a China Southern Airlines flight to Guangzhou, China, at I Gusti Ngurah Rai International Airport, Bali, Indonesia.
Thousands of Chinese workers are stranded around the world. Financial markets are crashing and dozens of airlines have ceased flying. More than one billion Chinese people have been effectively quarantined.
We need to go back 600 years to the Ming Dynasty which banned all maritime shipping between China and the rest of the world. Chinese dynasties continued to resist foreign trading and maintained her isolationist tendencies. It was only in the mid-1800s with British refusal to accept their intransigence that animosity erupted. It was only after China was defeated in the Opium Wars that China was forced to open up to the Western world.
The fear and uncertainty stemming from the spread of the coronavirus around the globe will not take hundreds of years to subside. The virus has now spread to 18 nations with about 9,600 confirmed cases. No expertise is required that the worry of the illness and fear of the illness has led to a reduction in travel. In the US alone, influenza infects on average 15 million Americans each year, causing over 50,000 deaths. It was not premature that all the US carriers have ceased flying to China for the next two months.
Three of the largest US airlines – Delta, American and United – have canceled more flights between the United States and China because of concerns about the spread of coronavirus. For American Airlines, the nation’s largest carrier, the decision comes after the union representing 15,000 pilots sued the company to immediately halt its US-China service, citing “serious, and in many ways still unknown, health threats posed by the coronavirus.”
“Based on the US Department of State’s recent increase of the China Travel Advisory to a Level 4 (do not travel), American is suspending its operations to and from the Chinese mainland beginning today through March 27,” American said in a statement. Its Hong Kong flights will continue to operate. The union applauded the move.
“Now that American is ceasing operations in China, the ultimate goal is that all our passengers and crew will remain safe and that was our main goal,” Capt. Dennis Tajer, a spokesperson for the Allied Pilots Association, stated.
United Airlines also suspended operations between their cities and Beijing, Chengdu and Shanghai until March 28. United added that it will still be operating one flight per day between San Francisco and Hong Kong. Delta reported it was suspending all flights from the United States to China until April 30. All three US airlines continued flying for one week to ensure customers looking to exit China have options to do so. Affected customers can request a refund, rebook their flight after the suspension lifts or speak with their travel agent for other options.
El Al didn’t offer such solace for its clients, ceasing almost immediately its flights to China while continuing operations to Hong Kong. While apologizing for the inconvenience to its clients and promising full refunds for unused tickets, its inability to offer a viable solution for passengers already in China to return home has led to consternation. Coupled with the Israeli Foreign Ministry denying it was evacuating its citizens, those Israelis caught in the shutdown remain orphans.
The list of airlines which have stopped flying in our out of China includes most European airlines as well as Chinese airlines which are not permitted to land in Israel. Both Sichuan and Hainan airlines have suspended their flights from China. The Israeli Health Ministry has issued a decree that anyone from China who did make their way to Israel would be subject to a two-week quarantine to ensure the virus was not present.
MOST COUNTRIES have adopted this model; like Japan and Russia, a ban on entry was decreed for all Chinese passengers. This extends to rail service with Hong Kong.
Hong Kong’s decision to cut rail and ferry links is their attempt to stop the coronavirus spread from China. Government leaders urged all residents in China to return home and quarantine themselves for 14 days. While Cathay Pacific as well as El Al are still flying between Hong Kong and Tel Aviv, traveler’s trepidation is deepening.
Clients are asking if even transiting Hong Kong airport is taking too large a risk. For the last several months travel professionals have been struggling with the question of whether it is even safe to fly to Hong Kong in light of the near-daily protests that were occurring. The Hong Kong protests that began last year, after the government tried to introduce a controversial extradition bill, are still ongoing and show no signs of slowing down.
Tourists in the city were warned not to wear face masks, utilized by protesters to lessen the effects of police identification. Now, though, with the palpable fear the coronavirus epidemic is unfolding, Hong Kong is at a volatile time. After months of large-scale protests, public trust in the government is at historic lows, and societal divisions at record highs. Yet the current public health crisis may well transcend political divides and unite Hong Kongers in their shared anger at the perceived incompetence of the government.
Medical experts are divided over whether face masks will prevent infection. Nonetheless, the virus has prompted people around the world to buy medical face masks in hopes of preventing infection. One of our groups just returned from Paris with both a third of the plane’s passengers wearing face masks, as well as all of the staff at Ben-Gurion airport.
Despite news of the first person-to-person spread of coronavirus in the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is not recommending that people start wearing face masks. Officials in the US, like in Israel, say that the virus is not spreading in the general community and thus there is no recommendation to use face masks to prevent contamination.
One should be vigilant to the symptoms and signs of coronavirus, which is a fever and a cough, and if one has those symptoms contact your healthcare provider. Remember, like most influenza and other respiratory illness, it is spread by droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes.
The general hygiene advice when traveling is quite basic. In the same way you’d protect against flu and other nasty bugs, it’s important to practice good hygiene. Make sure you:
• Wash hands regularly with warm water and soap, especially before handling and consuming food.
• Cough and sneeze into tissues, then put them in the bin. Don’t leave them lying around. If you haven’t got a tissue, cover your mouth when you cough.
• Avoid close contact with people who appear unwell.
• Try not to touch your eyes, nose and mouth, as these areas are prime gateways for germs to enter the body.
• Avoid sharing personal items with others.
Some airlines are modifying in-flight services to prevent – or at least, reduce – the spread of illness between countries. This includes suspended trolley services and, in some instances, suspension of hot towels, pillows, blankets and magazines. Basically, any items which can move germs around. If you’re taking a flight soon, it’s wise to pack a small blanket, your own travel pillow, an eye mask, pack of tissues, a water bottle, antibacterial wipes and hand sanitizer.
MOST COUNTRIES have issued very clear proclamations: Don’t travel to China. Not for work, not for leisure, not for family visits, not for conferences. Don’t travel to China.
Those same countries have stated unequivocally to those citizens in China: Get out.
Travelers hate uncertainty and it’s difficult to say how this global crisis will play out. We can look back at historical examples in hopes of identifying potential impacts. Health scares like this are not an uncommon occurrence, and have happened a handful of times in the last decade alone.
In 2016, Zika was all the rage and expecting couples around the globe had to alter their travel plans. There were reports of athletes who cited Zika as the reason for not competing in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.
In 2015, MERS caused quite a stir in the press. The most nerve racking was the Ebola virus outbreak in 2014, which also saw a travel pullback to effected areas.
However, in this case, the SARS episode in 2003 may be the most similar. Then, 8,000 people in more than 25 countries were infected. Economic activity in China slowed, and the stocks of airlines took it on the chin. However, once the virus was contained, spending activity in China and around the globe recovered quickly.
While we don’t know what the future of the coronavirus may be, history suggests that the likelihood of lasting negative travel impacts is low.
Is the virus here to stay?
When a virus circulates continuously in a community, it is said to be endemic. The viruses that cause chicken pox and influenza are endemic in many countries, but outbreaks can be controlled through vaccination and keeping people at home when they are ill.
One big question is whether the coronavirus is also here to stay. If efforts to contain it fail, there’s a high chance that it will become endemic. As with influenza, this could mean that deaths occur every year as the virus circulates until a vaccine is developed.
If the virus can be spread by people who are infected but don’t have symptoms, it will be more difficult to control its spread, making it more likely that the virus will become endemic. Several groups are working on a vaccine for the new coronavirus, but there’s no guarantee that it will be ready before the end of the current outbreak. One group says they may have an experimental vaccine ready for initial testing in just a month.
But experts caution this expedited timeline doesn’t always allow for careful evaluation of the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines. During the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak, it took about 20 months for a vaccine to be ready for testing in people. By then, the outbreak had been contained with public health measures like isolating infected people, setting up quarantines, and identifying people who had come in contact with those who were sick.
These steps are already being done in the current outbreak. When vaccines work, they’re excellent. In many cases, they’re the best way to prevent disease.
So buckle up, settle down and get ready for continued turbulence in the Chinese marketplace. This epidemic will not go away so quickly and the tourism world, like the general public will not escape unscathed. The resilience of the Chinese people though and their long history in overcoming adversity can be summarized in the Confucius’s saying: “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.”
The writer is CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem. For questions and comments email him at