February 07, 2020 12:20
The coronavirus scare is piling on the woes for the travel industry as Koreans shun not only China but Southeast Asia as well.
Airlines are suspending or curtailing flights after visitors to Thailand and Singapore apparently became infected there. Southeast Asia accounts for more than 60 percent of winter travel demand. At one travel agency, 30 percent of bookings to the region have been canceled and worse is to come.
The situation is so bad now that fears are mounting of a domino effect of bankruptcies to come. One staffer at a tour agency said, "The situation is far worse than in January."
Travel agencies are downsizing and telling staff to take unpaid leaves. "Many travel agencies can't stay afloat with earnings already battered by last year's boycott of Japan," one industry insider said. "There are increasing fears of a raft of bankruptcies not only among small travel agencies but even big ones."
Airlines are either halting or cutting down on flights. Jeju Air said it is halting flights from Incheon to Macau on Friday and from Jeju to Hong Kong from Feb. 19. Eastar Jet is halting flights from Incheon and Jeju to Macau and Hong Kong starting from Friday. Air Busan is shutting down flights from Busan to Macau on Friday.
The number of passengers on flights to Southeast Asia is declining sharply. Some 1,040 people took Korean Air's flights to Da Dang, Vietnam on Jan. 14, before the coronavirus outbreak was widely reported, but that plunged to 661 on Wednesday.
Customers are clashing with travel agencies over cancellation fees. Airlines and travel agencies are waiving them on trips to China, Hong Kong and Macau, but not on trips to other regions. Some customers believe the waiver should apply to all Southeast Asian countries, but travel agencies argue that they will go out of business if they let everyone cancel for free.
A petition to waive cancellation fees on the Cheong Wa Dae website Thursday drew 2,000 signatures in a day. One owner of a small, family-owned travel agency posted a message on the petition page saying, "If we fail to send our customers on tours, we make no profits. All cancellation fees are being spent to reimburse airlines and hotels for their canceled reservation, but some customers are threatening to tarnish our reputation by posting our names on the Internet."
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