- The Washington Times - Monday, March 9, 2020

It may not have been the most auspicious time to gather at the cavernous Washington Convention Center, but international travel agencies over the weekend insisted they were optimistic in the long term despite the impact the COVID-19 coronavirus scare is having on resorts, cruise lines and romantic getaways.

For veterans of the travel industry, the consistent message boiled down to: This too shall pass.

“I think the [travel] industry itself has weathered a lot of storms, so I think this [virus outbreak] is probably not the worst type of storm,” said Marco Fernandes, vice president of Sagres Vacations based in Fall River, Massachusetts, which specializes in package trips to Portugal and Spain.

Sagres Vacations was one of more than 80 international travel agencies at the Travel and Adventure Show in the District over the weekend boasting luxurious getaways and adventures to Africa, Asia and Europe.

Many of the thousands who attended the expo were looking to plan vacations abroad despite closed borders and headlines about quarantined cruise ships during the cascading coronavirus crisis. More than 111,000 infections in over 100 countries and territories have been confirmed.

Travel bans and infection rates are barring some Americans from international travel, and fear of the virus that causes the COVID-19 respiratory disease has postponed other trips. Travel agency executives say preparedness should take precedence over fear.

M. Carmen Carbonell, president of Your Own Italy agency, said bookings surged this fall before a “real slowdown” in January and February. Italy on Monday extended its travel lockdown to the entire country.

“Obviously, [the virus] is not a good thing for the tourism economy in Italy, but we know this too shall pass,” Ms. Carbonell said.

While COVID-19 is spreading in Europe, multiple travel agencies in European markets say bookings are surprisingly robust.

Petros Zissimos, managing director of Hellenic Holidays, said the virus has not affected “the flow of booking” for his agency’s upscale trips to Greece, nor does he have concerns that the virus will impact future business.

Virus concerns, he said, have created a “springboard” for 2021, with consumers planning trips farther in advance.

“Greece has done a fantastic job monitoring. … There are no cases on the islands [and] very few in Athens,” Mr. Zissimos said. “The majority of [confirmed] cases [in Greece] are in a city that actually is a port that people are coming to from Italy, so it’s being contained there.”

Taking a hit in Asia

A walk through the convention aisles for Asian markets indicated a more potent effect on tourism and travel.

Ridership on Japan’s vaunted transportation system is decreasing as fears of the virus increase.

The Central Japan Railway Co. reported an 8% decrease in ridership on high-speed trains in February compared with figures from last year. General Manager Masahiro Nakayama said the dip in business could affect the Japanese economy in the long term.

“Our ridership for these trains is a direct parameter of the condition of Japanese economy,” Mr. Nakayama said. “I think people are concerned if they see the numbers of the train ridership go down by 8%.

“The movement of people has been slowed down, so this might [have] some impact on our business overall — and not just our business, but the entire Japanese economy,” Mr. Nakayama said.

Other travel agencies focused on Asian markets are also feeling pain.

Melissa-Lee Mathewson, senior destination specialist for Toronto-based Goway Travel, said the outbreak of COVID-19 has taken a toll on the agency’s travel packages to Asian markets, but “not to the extent most people would think.”

“[Goway] has been around for 50 years now, so we’ve weathered a lot of storms like SARS and the economy and everything,” Ms. Mathewson said. “We’ve done a lot. We’re not overly concerned with what [the outbreak] is doing at this point because we know that once it’s over things will boom right back up again.”

Ms. Mathewson said trips to Europe and Africa are “selling like normal.”

While travel agencies work to maintain bookings, insurance brokers are experiencing an unusual surge in business.

Travel Insurance Center represents 20 of the largest travel insurance agencies in the United States. As COVID-19 spreads into some of the world’s most popular vacation destinations, consumers are checking their insurance coverage.

Agent representative Brandon Hughbanks said his phone has been ringing since the virus spread into Italy, and his inbox is filled with double the messages he usually receives.

“Once [the virus] was outside China and Singapore, we got news of South Korea, and then a couple days later Italy was announced and the phones just went nuts,” Mr. Hughbanks said.

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