The coronavirus outbreak shows why travellers could be more risk averse

Simon Calder
Worth the wait: the view from the Bund in Shanghai: Simon Calder

Anticipation can be really important aspect of a journey. For six months before the most expensive holiday I have ever booked, I relished the prospect of sailing aboard an Adventure Canada ship from Greenland to Quebec.

It turned out to be the worst holiday I have ever had. As the planned itinerary fell apart and the trip increasingly seemed to be run for the benefit of the staff rather than the passengers, morale disintegrated.

We were finally put out of the ship, and our misery, in Baffin Island rather than Quebec. But I had still banked the benefit derived from looking forward to a voyage.

Barbara K and her travel companion have been looking forward to a voyage, too. They have booked a cruise-and-stay trip in Asia, lasting five weeks and taking in India, Cambodia, Vietnam and Hong Kong before arriving at the Chinese port of Tianjin in mid-May. They travel to Beijing and onto Shanghai by rail.

But with newspaper front pages this week reading “UK On Killer Virus Alert” and “World War Flu”, the joy of anticipation has been elbowed out by apprehension.

Wuhan Coronavirus has brought tragedy for some families who have lost loved ones. The respiratory virus is causing enormous stress for people in the now-closed cities in China, and worry worldwide as the number of suspected cases rises.

Barbara writes: “Coronavirus is becoming an obvious concern. We need to know our options if we decided not to continue, or indeed cancel the whole tour entirely.”

I have written back to say I don’t know how the new coronavirus will evolve over the next few months. It may spread across the globe and cause widespread harm as well as massive disruption. More optimistically, new cases might peak soon but then subside; if previous “killer virus” scares are typical, concern will soon dwindle.

Fortunately Barbara has booked a package holiday – so, in the unfortunate and unlikely event that Foreign Office was to warn against travel to China, she would be entitled to a full refund.

At present the Foreign Office advises only against travel to the Wuhan region. There is no obligation for a travel firm to change their standard terms and conditions for a journey beginning 12 weeks from now.

In uncertain times, all I can say to Barbara is: wait and see. Either she will enjoy the trip as planned, or she will get her money back. But many other travellers share her risk perception, and I hope I can offer some advice for future journeys.

Committing well in advance for an extensive trip to a dozen different destinations that are susceptible to a range of events including extreme weather, terrorism and pandemic indicates a healthy appetite for risk.

Yet this sad episode is a reminder that, while anticipation has plenty of value, there is nothing wrong with being risk averse. If you share Barbara’s concerns, think carefully about when to book your next trip.

Whatever happens, I hope travellers will continue to practise scrupulous personal hygiene: washing hands frequently with soap, and avoiding close contact with anyone showing symptoms of respiratory illness such as coughing and sneezing. If you, like me, are averse to risk, that will increase the odds significantly in your favour.

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