It is the question on every traveller’s mind right now: should I stay or should I go? Here are some of the risks and upsides of going on holidays now.
It is the question on every traveller’s mind right now: should I stay or should I go? Here are some of the risks and upsides of going on holidays now.

Should I still go on holidays in a coronavirus pandemic?

It is the question on every traveller's mind right now: should I stay or should I go?

Australia has so far raised its travel advice for six countries because of the coronavirus threat.

China and Iran have been designated "do not travel", while Australians have been urged to reconsider the need for any trips to South Korea and Italy, and to exercise a high degree of caution if visiting Japan or Mongolia.

The World Health Organisation has not discouraged overseas travel for everyone, but noted "it is prudent for travellers who are sick to delay or avoid travel to affected areas, in particular for elderly travellers and people with chronic diseases or underlying health conditions".

Nigel McMillan, Professor of Infectious Diseases and Immunology at Griffith University's Menzies Health Institute, said Australians aged over 65, and those with pre-existing medical conditions should "think very hard about travelling right now" and that deferring may be a better option.

"I have cancelled my own trip to Europe next week," he said.

His warning for all travellers, no matter their age, is stark.

"There is basically nowhere that is safe from infection right now," he said. "All continents except Antarctica have this, and in countries with zero or a low number of cases, this is more likely due to lack of good public health system and lack of testing."

Reports of virus-free areas around the world are misleading, experts believe, because scenarios can change so rapidly.

New Zealand, for example, had just five confirmed cases of coronavirus as of Wednesday - all of whom had links to Iran and Italy - but Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern warned the situation could change.

"At this stage, cases haven't been really coming in and having a direct impact at that primary health level," she told AAP.

"When we see wider community transmission … that's when we start moving into the phase where you (ban) mass gatherings. That's not where NZ is presently."

Prof McMillan suggested countries with which Australia has reciprocal health care agreements could be safer options for overseas travellers.

Australia has reciprocal health arrangements with New Zealand, as well as 10 European nations: Belgium, Finland, Ireland, Italy, Malta, The Netherlands, Norway, Slovenia, Sweden and the UK.

These agreements can cover or subsidise some emergency medical costs - usually for urgent treatment that can't wait until you get home - but the agreements vary from country to country.

"But be aware that some countries' health systems are not at the same standard as here and some are (or will soon be) overwhelmed and so are not functioning as they normally might," Prof McMillan said.

Italy is a case in point. Reports suggest the Italian health care system is struggling to cope with the number of infections and deaths.

 

 

Australia is not immune from the virus, of course, but holidaying at home rather than overseas may present as an attractive option for some, if only because of the ease of obtaining health care if needed.

Australia Tourism's "Holiday Here This Year" campaign was launched on January 23, but it should be noted it was intended as a response to the bushfire crisis, and the industry has deliberately not marketed a local holiday as way of avoiding coronavirus.

While those with travel coming up soon face immediate decisions, people who have booked trips a bit further afield have been advised to sit tight for now.

Chair of the Council of Australian Tour Operators Dennis Bunnik advised Australians with travel booked for after June 1 to do nothing just yet.

"The situation will likely change significantly in the next three months and making a decision to cancel or delay your booking now may result in unnecessary cancellation and amendment fees," he said.

All travellers are advised to monitor smarttraveller.com.au as well as their airline or tour operator's website for updates.

 

 

 

WHAT IF YOU GET SICK?

 

For 80 per cent of people who contract coronavirus, the experience is no worse than a mild cold, said infectious diseases expert Prof Nigel McMillan.

He advised fluids and rest - but he stressed the need for isolation.

"Do not spread it around as older folk (+65s) have a very high mortality rate," he said.

"For the other 20 per cent that might require a higher level of care it will depend on each country. If Australia has a reciprocal health agreement, then no problem, otherwise you will be paying for this care."

He described getting sick in the USA as a "worst case cost scenario", because of the country's prohibitively high health care costs.

 

80 per cent of people who get coronavirus experience nothing worse than a mild cold. Picture: Sam Ruttyn
80 per cent of people who get coronavirus experience nothing worse than a mild cold. Picture: Sam Ruttyn

 

Getting sick in the United States is considered a “worst case scenario” because of the high medical costs. Picture: Sam Ruttyn
Getting sick in the United States is considered a “worst case scenario” because of the high medical costs. Picture: Sam Ruttyn

 

Staying isolated can present a massive problem for travellers.

In Israel, the government says international arrivals who cannot prove that they have a place where they can isolate themselves for two weeks will be turned away - and they have specified that tourists can't use hotels for that purpose.

Michael Johnson, CEO of Tourism Accommodation Australia, said hotels worldwide would increasingly have to deal with guests needing to isolate themselves - either because they were unwell, or because they had come into contact with a person who had the virus.

This had already happened with the Chinese Women's Football Team, who were isolated in their rooms for 14 days at Brisbane's Westin Hotel in January, he said.

"We'll see more of this as the virus takes a stronger hold," he said. Guests who needed to isolate themselves should divulge that information to hotel management so appropriate precautions could be taken, Mr Johnson said.

"Guests (who needed to isolate) would be asked to stay away from public spaces, and room attendants would clean with gloves and masks. They would also ask guests to wear masks when they do enter the room," he said.

Hotels should also advise state health agencies if they had guests staying who were requiring isolation, he added.

 

 

HOW DO YOU COMPLAIN ABOUT TRAVEL INSURANCE?

 

 

The Australian Financial Complaints Authority has received just eight complaints regarding travel insurance policies since coronavirus emerged as a global health issue, but Lead Ombudsman John Price is preparing for a deluge.

"I suspect the inquiries will escalate given the WHO announcement … and the increasing travel bans around the world," he said.

AFCA was responding with a designated coronavirus hub on its website, and would consider a hotline if the volume of complaints warranted it.

Mr Price suggested travellers should contact their provider in the first instance if they need to cancel or postpone their trips.

A number of airlines, including Qantas, Jetstar, Qatar, Emirates and Cathay Pacific are enabling customers to change their flights without incurring fees. Many travel companies, as well as AirBnB, are also allowing easier cancellations.

If the travel companies do not provide a satisfactory response, the travel insurer should be the next point of contact, Mr Price said.

 

The watchdog has received just 12 complaints about travel insurance companies. Picture: Matrix
The watchdog has received just 12 complaints about travel insurance companies. Picture: Matrix

 

"If the insurer refuses the claim (you) can contact AFCA and we can look at the policy itself, and determine from there whether the response from the insurer was fair," he said.

An audit of 32 travel insurance product disclosure statements by comparison site Finder this week found 15 companies specifically exclude claims related to epidemics or pandemics.

The Finder research also found that policy coverage could vary depending on when it was taken out, with dates between January 20 and 24 usually cited as when most travellers should have been aware of the coronavirus threat.

The World Health Organisation's official designation of COVID-19 as a global pandemic on Wednesday (Thursday morning Australian time) could also be significant for a number of policy claims, Mr Price warned, because it meant that the cancellation of some big events could now be deemed a "foreseeable event" under the terms of the policy.

Mr Price said there was no easy way to identify a good travel insurance policy product.

He advised any travellers looking at travel insurance policies now to ask specific questions about coronavirus.

"Ask the question: will I be covered for cancellation, isolation and delay because of the virus," he said. "If the answer being provided is yes, then OK, record that, and make sure when you receive the documents that's what it says, and you should be fine.

"But I think the polices that actually extend to cover all that will most likely be few and far between, or be extremely expensive," he said.

Industry sources warned there were vast discrepancies between travel insurance policies regarding reimbursing travellers for any costs arising from the need to isolate, or change plans because of sudden changes in government policies.

Chair of the Council of Australian Tour Operators Dennis Bunnik said: "All travel insurance policies have clauses about pandemics, and there's no guarantee that travel insurance companies will pay for additional costs for being in quarantine."

"The traveller will likely be out of pocket and need to cover some of those things."

 

 

SHOULD I GET ON A CRUISE?

 

Cruise liners have been at the centre of media coverage of the coronavirus crisis, thanks to outbreaks on a number of ships including the Diamond Princess, off the coast of Japan, and the Grand Princess, off the coast of California.

The government has urged all Australians, but particularly those with underlying health concerns, to reconsider taking an overseas cruise, after the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared there was an increased risk of infection of COVID-19 in a cruise ship environment.

On Thursday, Viking announced the suspension of all its river and ocean cruise operations until May 1 - an unprecedented step for the industry.

 

has offered all paying customers impacted by the suspension a voucher valued at 125 per cent of what they had paid - redeemable within the next two years - or a full refund.

Jill Abel, CEO of the Australian Cruise Association, said a number of cruise liners including the Queen Mary 2, the Queen Elizabeth, the Spectrum of the Seas and the Sapphire Princess were increasingly looking to Australian ports as they needed to divert ships around Asia.

The inclusion of regional ports such as Kangaroo Island and Eden on ships' itineraries would also help in the bushfire recovery, she said.

The Cruise Line Industry Association (CLIA) adopted a series of new on-boarding protocols on March 3, including a new provision that denies boarding to anybody who had been in or even transited though airports in Iran, Italy, South Korea and China (including Hong Kong and Macau) in the 14 days before embarkation.

Boarding is also being denied to anybody who has had close contact with a person who was diagnosed or even suspected of having COVID-19 in the 14 days before embarkation.

"The cruise industry is one of the most well-equipped and experienced when it comes to managing and monitoring health conditions of passengers and crew," the CLIA said in a statement.

"Cruise lines take precautions to conduct passive as well as active screening of passengers and crew for illness prior to boarding when circumstances demand. Furthermore, CLIA members implement outbreak prevention and response measures and their ships must be fitted with medical facilities, shipboard and shore side medical professionals available around the clock, 24/7, to provide initial medical care in the event of illness and prevent disease transmission."

WHAT OTHER RISKS DO I FACE?

When US President Donald Trump announced the US was banning European travellers from travelling to the States for a month, he warned: "We are moving very quickly".

For anybody with holiday plans, it was a sharp realisation of just how quickly the reality of international travel could be usurped by the threat of coronavirus.

Tourism industry experts warn that while getting sick is a risk for international travellers, an even likelier occurrence is that plans will be thrown into disarray by swift changes to government policies and practices.

The Australian government's Smart Traveller website specifically urges travellers to "understand the risks you're taking and that efforts to control the spread of COVID-19 may cause further travel disruptions and restrictions".

The reality of international travel hit home when the US banned planes from Europe. Picture: Ariel Schalit
The reality of international travel hit home when the US banned planes from Europe. Picture: Ariel Schalit

Australian travellers are urged to check in with Smart Traveller and other sites frequently so they can be informed of updates as information can change quickly.

Others have warned that the situation in areas that have not been on the coronavirus news radar to date may be most susceptible to volatile change.

Associate Professor Adam Kamradt-Scott for the Centre for International Security Studies at the University of Sydney warned that Africa could be an example.

"A number of countries have yet to detect cases, but it is considered likely that this has more to do with limited laboratory capacity to confirm the presence of the virus, rather than the reality there are no cases," he said.

"(Africa) … has only recorded a handful of cases so far and yet it is believed the virus may be circulating widely.

"The African Centres for Disease Control (CDC) has successfully mobilised resources to support 36 laboratories across Africa to now test for the virus, so we expect to see more cases being confirmed in the coming weeks."



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