Coronavirus travel chaos – How your holiday plans are affected

Tom Flanagan
News Reporter

This story was updated on Wednesday, March 11 to reflect the most up to date travel advice.

As the ever-expanding coronavirus outbreak prompts vast restrictions – some unprecedented – globally, international tourism has been sent into complete disarray.

In a drastic move on Monday (local time), Italy’s prime minister Giuseppe Conte announced a lockdown of the entire country as the virus continues to spread.

And as the number of cases in dozens of other countries continue to soar, experts are warning similar restrictions in other regions and countries are imminent.

Such restrictions have meant the immediate and future travel plans of hundreds of thousands of Australians have been put into serious doubt, with many questioning if travelling is worth it, if it puts their health at risk or even if they’re allowed to enter the country.

As coronavirus continues to spread globally, travel advice continues to change. Source: Getty

“The COVID-19 outbreak has had an unprecedented impact on global travel,” travel insurance expert Natalie Ball, director at Comparetravelinsurance.com.au, told Yahoo News Australia.

“As Italy experiences a staggering death toll of 463 and 9,000 confirmed cases, those headed to the region are querying whether travel insurance will cover any issues related to coronavirus.”

Can I still travel to Italy?

On Tuesday, the Australian government’s Smartraveller updated its advice for Italy following the country’s national lockdown.

Advice for large parts of Italy’s north, including Milan and Venice, was upgraded to ‘Do not travel’ from ‘Reconsider travel’.

This includes the region of Lombardy and the provinces of Modena, Parma, Piacenza, Reggio nell' Emilia, Rimini, Pesaro and Urbino, Alessandria, Asti, Novara, Verbano-Cusio-Ossola, Vercelli, Padova, Treviso, and Venezia.

Before Tuesday, advice for the rest of the country was to ‘exercise a high degree of caution’, however this was later upgraded to ‘Reconsider travel’.

On an enjoyment level, travel inside of Italy has been drastically reduced, meaning anyone planning on touring the coastline, for example, would be left disappointed.

And with bars and restaurants under tight restrictions as well as tourist attractions now visitor-free, the holiday might not be what was first envisaged when you chose the country for your dream trip.

“You can still enter and leave Italy if you need to. Airports are open, but expect travel disruptions,” Smartraveler says.

An armed guard outside the closed off Duomo di Milano . Source: Getty

“As the situation continues to evolve we’re encouraging customers to stay-up-to date with global events,” Ms Ball said.

Any elderly travellers or people with underlying health problems should contact their doctor before travel.

On Wednesday, Australia added Italy to its list of countries which it was banning incoming passengers from at airports. The ban will come into effect as of 6PM on Wednesday.

Australian citizens are exempt from the ban but will be forced into a two-week self-quarantine on return if they have spent time in Italy.

Am I covered by insurance and can I change my travel plans?

For most travel insurance cover, it depends when it was purchased.

On January 23, the Department of Foreign Affairs made its first announcement of the risk of travel amid the outbreak, making it a “known event” for insurers.

According to Choice, the majority of insurers cover certain elements of pandemics or epidemics if the policy was purchased before it became a “known event”.

However if it was purchased after DFAT’s action, most insurers will not cover anything related to the virus.

If you contract coronavirus abroad and need immediate care, the majority of insurers will cover immediate treatment if your insurance was purchased before the cut-off date.

When it comes to claiming cancellation costs however, Choice revealed less than half of insurers covered cancellations as a result of pandemic or epidemic, even before the “known event” was established.

Trying to find an insurance policy to cover for cancellations related to coronavirus now is near impossible, unless you splash out on a ‘Cancel for any reason’ policy.

This will cover you for up to 75 per cent of cancellation costs up to $10,000 but must be purchased within 48 hours of paying for flights and accomodation.

“If you’re unsure about any upcoming travel plans, do your due diligence and check your insurer’s fineprint to ensure what’s covered under your policy,” Ms Ball said.

“See if you can postpone any travel dates and invest in refundable, flexible tickets. And always check DFAT’s travel advisories before moving forward.”

Travel into Australia has been restricted from certain countries. Source: AAP

If it gets to the point where your holiday is no longer viable, Ms Ball noted most travel service providers will try to accomodate changes or cancellations.

“Many travel service providers are offering penalty-free options for customers to amend or cancel their travel arrangements due to coronavirus. Check to see what you are entitled to before contacting your insurer,” she explained to Yahoo News Australia.

Several airlines, including Qantas and Emirates, are allowing customers to change flights free of charge, however there are restrictions on when the flights are booked and the date of departure.

“Given the changing global landscape, we are offering our customers flexibility when they book,” Qantas announced.

Is it safe to travel to anywhere in Asia?

The government is currently advising for Australians to not travel to China or Iran at all.

While China’s rise in cases has plateaued, it still has by far the largest amount of confirmed cases – more than 80,000.

Iran has over 7000 cases and 237 confirmed deaths.

Anyone wanting to travel to South Korea (7,478 cases) should ‘reconsider their need to travel’, while those visiting Japan (511 cases) and Mongolia need to ‘exercise a high degree of caution’.

The Australian government has implemented a travel ban on South Korea, Iran and China and any Australian who travels to the countries will be subject to a mandatory 14-day isolation on their return, Smartraveller says.

It also warns travellers to Japan could be subject to a quarantine period, which can be implemented for other countries “at short notice”.

However Ms Ball noted all other Asian destinations are open, and while she notes the situation can easily change, travellers mustn’t be fooled by misinformation about other countries across the continent.

“Misinformation can run rampant during pandemics which is why it’s best to stick to authoritative resources,” she told Yahoo News Australia.

She advised travellers to seek travel advice regularly from the World Health Organisation and Smartraveller.

Should I avoid all overseas cruises?

It has been a turbulent time for the cruise line industry amid the coronavirus outbreak, with several high-profile vessels sent into lockdown and quarantined, most notably the Diamond Princess where six people died in an outbreak and hundreds more contracted the virus.

The Diamond Princess docked in Yokohama. Source: AP

And despite drastic measures implemented by cruise liners to deny passengers who have been to China, Hong Kong, Macau, Iran, South Korea or Italy 14 days prior to boarding, Smartraveller has advised Australians, particularly the elderly or those with underlying health concerns, to reconsider boarding cruises.

“There have been instances of cruise ships being put into quarantine, countries preventing disembarkation of ships or denying entry to ports,” Smartraveller says.

“Disruptions to cruise ship itineraries due to COVID-19 can have significant consequences for travellers.”

Smartraveller notes individuals could not rely on the government to guarantee their return if an outbreak of coronavirus occurred.

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