The outbreak of the 2019 coronavirus is hitting travelers between Hawaii and China as well as Hawaii companies that rely on their business.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, raising the coronavirus to warning level, recommended Monday that travelers avoid all nonessential travel to any part of China, and not just to the outbreak’s epicenter, Wuhan. Chinese officials have shut down transportation in and out of Wuhan and 17 other cities in Hubei province.
Honolulu resident David Carr, 67, was looking forward to his first trip to China with his wife, a third-generation Chinese American, when the travel agency called Thursday, 24 hours before departure time, saying it was canceled.
“My 91-year-old dad in Ohio said, ‘I don’t think you should go,’” he said. “I said, ‘I think it’s going to be fine, Dad.’”
Carr said that on Thursday the situation didn’t seem so bad, but things are “unfolding daily,” and “in retrospect I feel that they made the right decision.”
Air &Sea Travel owner Henry Ou said the company canceled the trip for 130 people but was waiting from the airline and for word from China to agree to cancel hotel bookings without penalty.
“When we cancel, we try to minimize the loss for travelers, but the money was already paid out” to the airline and hotels, he said. “We were working with China Eastern Airlines and the government, but the CDC hadn’t issued a travel warning at that time, and we didn’t have any evidence to argue.”
“We decided by the 23rd, we cannot wait anymore,” Ou said. “Whether we got the money or not, we would have canceled. … We decided for the customers’ health concerns, we cannot send this tour. It’s too risky. Mainly, the people on this tour are seniors.”
Deaths were up to 106 in China on Tuesday, and the United States and other governments are preparing to have their citizens flown out of Wuhan.
There were 45 cases confirmed elsewhere in the world, including five in the U.S.
Since China is in the middle of celebrating the Lunar New Year, Ou said it is difficult to get a written confirmation of refunds since everyone is on holiday.
He said travelers who booked on other airlines such as United were able to get a full refund, but his tour was booked on China Eastern Airlines, which has not given final confirmation of a refund.
However, he is confident that will happen. Air &Sea will retain $100 per customer for pre-trip briefing lunches, losses for exchange rate drops and other expenses. But customers get a $100 credit for any future tours booked. The cost for the trip was $1,388 for a 10-day trip.
He said the loss to his agency is minimal. “We basically don’t make anything, but the staff has to continue working” to refund everyone.
Air &Sea Travel has a group flying in today from Hong Kong. Its tour included mainland China, and “according to the tour leader, everybody is fine,” Ou said.
Ou said there is “lots of uncertainty” in China.
China has extended the Lunar New Year holiday for another three days to Sunday to reduce the possibility of infection by keeping people at home. Shanghai’s government is recommending extending it to Feb. 9.
“The Chinese government is very strong in controlling the situation,” he said. “They can pretty much make extreme policies. … This is the only way to stop the virus from spreading.”
Carr said he doesn’t feel like he’s dodged a bullet in terms of his health.
“Death rates are not that high,” he said, adding that driving on the H-1 freeway or catching the flu has a fair amount of risk. “It doesn’t seem scary to me.”
But “what if they won’t let people out of China if we got in?” he had thought. And his sister, who is coming to stay with him soon, is going to feel more comfortable they didn’t go to China, he said.
His daughter, Andrea Carr, a certified public accountant, tweeted, “At least I can cross off my tax season worry list ‘get parents out of Shanghai.’”
As for visitors coming into Hawaii from China, at least one travel agency said it has gotten cancellations.
Selene Wang, president of Dragon Tours, said one group that came from China and had a stay in Honolulu already has gone on to the U.S. mainland, but the rest of the inbound tours already have canceled.
“One was supposed to arrive tomorrow,” she said Monday. “They canceled.”
She said that two to three years ago, her business of inbound tours relied mostly on China.
“We experienced SARS first,” she said, and recalled it took about “about three months to get over it.”
Hawaii Tourism Authority President and CEO Chris Tatum said in a written statement: “The safety and welfare of Hawaii’s residents and visitors is our main concern.
“Our team at the Hawaii Tourism Authority has been working with the State Department of Health to monitor the situation,” he said. “We have also been updating our teams around the world with information given to us by the DOH and CDC.”
Its latest data shows Hawaii received 85,698 visitors from China through November, a 25.5% drop from November 2018.
In 2018, 123,246 visitors arrived from China, and 141,232 in 2017.
The state Department of Health recommends self-monitoring for 14 days, the maximum incubation period, after travel to China. A person is contagious only when they are symptomatic and start to feel sick, DOH spokeswoman Janice Okubo said. Symptoms range from coldlike symptoms to more severe flu-like symptoms.
The CDC recommends that anyone who was in China in the last 14 days and who feels sick with fever, cough or difficulty breathing seek immediate medical care. They should first call ahead to the doctor’s office or emergency room.
People should not travel while sick.
Anyone who must travel to China should avoid contact with sick people and discuss travel plans with their health care provider, the CDC says.