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China has cancelled all domestic and outbound group tours until further notice as cases of novel coronavirus mount and non-essential travel activities grind to a halt during what is traditionally China’s busiest travel season.
As of 7:30 p.m. China time Sunday night, more than 2,000 cases of the virulent respiratory infection had been reported around the country, with most still centered in the central China city of Wuhan, population 11 million. Fifty-six deaths have been confirmed by health officials, according to The Associated Press.
On Saturday night China time, the China Travel Service Association (CTSA) announced the temporary suspension of all group tours and package trips, what it referred to as “hotel and air ticket services,” both within China and abroad. Trips already underway are allowed to continue to completion, as are any scheduled before Monday, January 27, CTSA said. CTSA’s statement followed an order from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism on January 24 to halt sales of group tours and travel packages.
Also on Saturday, Trip.com, China’s largest travel services company, said in a statement it was expanding its “cancellation guarantee” policy to cover bookings at 30,000 global hotels to offer refunds for bookings between January 24 and midnight on February 8.
Domestic travelers who decide to go ahead with their trips and inbound tourists wanting to get in on Chinese New Year celebrations are guaranteed to be disappointed, as major attractions around China, including Hong Kong, are already shut. Those sites include the Forbidden City and sections of the Great Wall of China near Beijing, Shanghai Disneyland and Hong Kong Disneyland, and Hong Kong’s Ocean Park, despite those cities being hundreds or more miles from Wuhan.
All flights, train service, ferries, and inter-city buses out of Wuhan were cancelled beginning Thursday morning. Flights and trains continue to run in other parts of the country and internationally, although traveler volume is down 40-50 percent on both, according to China Central Television Sunday evening.
The suspensions and closures come against the background of what is usually China’s biggest travel period. Hundreds of millions of people travel during Chinese New Year to celebrate with family, a week-long national holiday. In recent years, many have begun using the time off to visit other parts of the country, or increasingly, to travel abroad.
The blow may be lessened by the fact that outbound travel in 2018 and 2019 was initiated increasingly before the holiday, which began this year on Friday, January 24, and grew 18.8 percent year on year in 2019, according to travel business analysis firm ForwardKeys.
It could be weeks before the impact on the travel industry will be known. Already China’s government is hinting at an extension of the holiday period, with some school districts and universities pushing the beginning of new terms to mid-February, instead of resuming on or close to February 1, when the public holiday ends.
“This is a very serious situation for Chinese travel agencies, who facilitate a significant amount of outbound travel during the Chinese New Year period and may have difficulties being able to refund consumers with such short notice,” said Sienna Parulis-Cook, communications manager for UK-based Dragon Trail Interactive.