Last updated: 01:21 PM ET, Fri June 12 2015

Tour Operators Seeing Few MERS-Related Cancellations

Tour Operator | David Cogswell | June 12, 2015

Tour Operators Seeing Few MERS-Related Cancellations

As the MERS outbreak in South Korea appears to be winding down, American tour operators are breathing a sigh of relief in hopes that they have dodged the bullet on this one.

The Middle East Respiratory Syndrome has now killed 11 people in South Korea. But hospitals have isolated more than 3,000 people, who are being held for two weeks, which is believed to be the incubation period for the disease.

More than 1,200 have already gone through the isolation period and been released.

The number of actual cases of the disease in South Korea has only reached 126 people. More than 3,000 schools were closed, but officials are now considering opening them again.

Hong Kong and Macau both issued travel alerts for South Korea over fears of MERS. Passengers arriving at Hong Kong’s airport from South Korea are being tested for temperatures.

Though the numbers for MERS are still very low, for tour operators, even a remote threat can and often does turn into a panic that can decimate business.

“We have experienced cancellations on bookings departing this summer to South Korea,” said Nancy Stern, managing director of Asian Vistas, a division of Isramworld. “Our team has been fielding many questions. Most passengers for the travel beyond September are taking a wait-and-see approach. It has not yet affected our business to China or elsewhere in the region.”

Most tour operators have experienced little effect from the disease.

“It’s had no impact on us,” said Bob Drumm, president of Alexander + Roberts, “though we all still have to keep an eye out.”

Tour operators for Asia remain cautiously optimistic.

“We are aware of the situation,” said Jeff Watson, guest services consultant with Backroads. “But currently it is not affecting any of our China departures.”  

South Korea is still not a major tourist destination for Americans, and so far the fear of MERS seems to still be localized in South Korea in the minds of consumers. The fear of MERS has not spread to other Asian destinations.

“We really don’t think the situation in South Korea is going to have a serious impact on travel,” said Diane Molzan, general manager Asia, Goway Travel. “The country is taking the necessary precautions to contain the spread of the virus and to date news reports suggest that those who have been infected with the virus were as a result of a visit to a hospital. We have been getting questions from concerned travelers but no one has requested a cancellation on their tour. Travel appears to be business as usual.  Goway remains in close contact with our ground office in Seoul and we will continue to reassess the situation as necessary.”

Laudi Hanou, vice president of SITA World Tours, said the company’s clientele has become sophisticated enough to take the MERS situation in stride.

“Consumers who travel today to international long haul destinations are an educated segment of the market,” she said. “They have already been exposed to media about other medical issues such as SARS and most recently Ebola and are therefore more educated on the issue and why it's safe to travel. International travelers today educate themselves on the destinations in advance. These are the type of well-versed travelers that SITA services.”

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