British banker Jamie Wong, 34, was planning to spend some time in his company’s Singapore office next week, as he was heading to the city state to attend his brother-in-law’s wedding.
But he was told he would have to work from home since his last port of call was Hong Kong. He also had to cancel a trip to Taiwan because the government there would have quarantined him for 14 days.
While Japan has no such orders for travellers from Hong Kong, Wong called off a trip to Tokyo scheduled for early March because of the rising cases of coronavirus infections there.
“I don’t really want to get infected,” said Wong, although he added he would be heading to Malaysia on a trip in April as planned. “Hopefully, the outbreak will die down by then.”
Wong is among an increasing number of travellers putting a halt to their holiday and work trips to Singapore and a few other Asian countries, due to the coronavirus outbreak that originated in Wuhan and has since spread to more than 20 locations.
On Friday, Singapore raised its alert level from yellow to orange because community transmission was occurring.
The city state found four cases of people diagnosed with the virus who had no links to other patients and who had not recently travelled to China.
Wong said he would have skipped the wedding in Singapore if it were not a family event.
Since the infections were announced on December 31, 2019, the coronavirus has infected more than 34,000 people worldwide and killed over 700. While at least 1,500 patients have recovered, cases are increasing globally, with Japan, Singapore and Thailand registering the highest number of cases outside China.
More than 50 airlines have cancelled or suspended flights to mainland China, with some also giving Hong Kong a miss.
On Twitter, some users have asked airlines and hotels if they could cancel flights to Singapore. Indian chemical engineer Ankita Sarkar posted on Friday to ask travel booking site Goibibo if she could have a refund for her Rest Bugis Hotel booking in March.
Aydin Ilhan, who runs a consulting firm in Singapore, said he was hiring a Brazilian man and had already processed his visa documents, but the worker was now staying put in South America because his wife was afraid of catching the virus in the city state.
Aydin, too, may put off a business trip in April to Hong Kong, where at least 26 cases have been reported.
A top microbiologist believes there is already a community spread of the coronavirus in Hong Kong. Mainland Chinese have also been entering the city and been quarantined in hotels or public facilities.
“My wife doesn’t want me to go. So we need to see how this outbreak develops or evolves,” Aydin said. “I haven’t decided yet if I’m going or not but it’s important for me to be there.”
Britain on Friday expanded a list of countries from which returning travellers experiencing coronavirus symptoms should self-isolate. Singapore and seven other Asian territories were on the new list, when previously its warning was only for those returning from mainland China, where the majority of infections are occurring.
The change came after Britain’s third patient, a middle-aged man, was found to have caught the virus after returning from a business meeting in Singapore held at the luxury Grand Hyatt hotel.
The conference was attended by more than 90 foreign participants, including visitors from Hubei province, the epicentre of contagion. In recent days, several participants in South Korea, Malaysia and Singapore have tested positive for the virus.
Tourists are also avoiding Japan, where at least 64 infections have been reported on board a cruise ship quarantined off Yokohama. The patients include about 21 Japanese citizens, 10 Americans, as well as nationals from Canada, Australia, Argentina, China and Britain. They were taken to hospitals for treatment. Japan has separately seen at least 25 cases of the coronavirus.
Some Twitter users are also pressuring businesses from Lufthansa Airlines to Cruise Norwegian to refund their flights and cruises to Japan. One disgruntled user wrote to Cruise Norwegian, in the spotlight for refusing a family a refund: “Did you catch [the] news story about people with #coronavirus quarantined on a cruise in Asia-Pacific? Do you still think you’re better off denying refunds or rescheduling to customers who may become sick?”
While countries such as Singapore and Japan have a reputation for being clean and efficient, the spread of the virus appears to be putting a dent in the countries’ attractiveness.
DBS economist Irvin Seah said this was because “these two cities are also very densely populated and two-ways traveller flows with China are exceptionally high too”.
Seah expected to see global travel “reduce drastically” because of the various travel bans imposed, as well as cautious travellers holding off on their plans.
Tour agencies have also been feeling the impact of cancelled plans.
Alicia Seah, director of marketing communications at Dynasty Travel, said she had seen a sharp drop in travel enquiries and bookings for both inbound and outbound markets. She estimated the damage to be about 40 to 50 per cent for the first half of this year.
Dynasty Travel handles both individual and corporate travel, and Seah said the corporate clients were more sensitive to the outbreak. “They are taking zero risks and are avoiding coming into Singapore at this juncture for February and March,” she said.
Those who had already booked trips to destinations such as Europe or America were going ahead, but those who had not were holding off, she added.
Economist Seah said he expected a decline of about 1 million tourists or about S$1 billion (US$719 million) of lost tourism receipts in Singapore for every three months of travel ban.
He added that the estimation excluded “the indirect effect of global travellers cancelling or deferring their travel plans to the region, including Singapore, due to the virus outbreak, as well as the risk of further spread of the virus outside China resulting in even tighter travel restrictions”.
Meanwhile, Singapore’s Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said on Thursday that his ministry was working “very feverishly” with the Ministry of Finance to develop a package to help those in the aviation sector.
Khaw also suggested Changi Airport might speed up part of the construction of its Terminal 5, given reduced activity at the airport. Local media have reported that businesses at Jewel Changi Airport were noticing thinner crowds in the mall.