by Elizabeth West, Business Travel News | January 31, 2020

Updated Jan. 31 9:21am ET

Total confirmed coronavirus cases in China has reached 9,658; deaths now at 213. Total confirmed cases outside of China have now reached 118.
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The largest business travel market in the world is becoming increasingly isolated as companies like Alphabet, Apple, Facebook and LG suspend operations in China and restrict business travel as the novel coronavirus outbreak further grips the country. South Korea's LG has banned business travel to the country outright, according to reporting from The Verge. As the spread of the virus accelerates within China and to 21 other countries, the World Health Organization declared a global health emergency. Corporate travel policies undoubtedly will respond in kind to the threat to business travelers.

The most current information available on Jan. 30 put confirmed novel coronavirus cases at 8,124 in China, with 170 deaths from the disease. Countries outside of China have reported a total of 111 confirmed cases of the virus (see sidebar), which originated in China's Hubei province where it jumped from livestock to a human host in the city of Wuhan.

For restaurant chain Domino's, travel to China, including Hong Kong, can only be booked with Domino's leadership approval and through the company's dedicated TMC, travel and events manager Becky Kalucki said in an email to BTN. Kalucki has disabled China itineraries on the corporate online booking tool and has implemented messaging that will direct those attempting to book such travel either to corporate leadership or to Kalucki herself for a determination. 

"We've had only a handful of travelers who recently returned from, or have upcoming plans for, travel to China," Kalucki said. "For those who recently traveled, they took necessary precautions and followed all safety protocols to ensure their personal health while travelling. Thankfully, they were not affected.

"For those with upcoming trips already scheduled, we have asked that they postpone their travel to China until further notice," she continued. "We anticipate changes in our response as the World Health Organization, Center for Disease Control and the U.S. government [issue further] recommendations." 

Advice from Risk Experts

Domino's has the right approach, according to three corporate travel risk specialists who spoke to BTN. 

Their recommendations were fairly straightforward, and in alignment with the WHO, CDC and State Department.

"No non-essential travel to mainland China and no travel at all to the epicenter of the outbreak in Hubei province," said AIG Travel global medical director William Spangler. Riskline Eurasia operations manager Emanuele Scansani echoed that statement, as did Healix International chief medical officer Adrian Hyzler.

"Travelers should rethink their need to travel to China. If they can postpone, they should," said Scansani. 

"We are advising clients to suspend travel to China, not least because they could get stranded there, given the dynamics of the situation," said Hyzler. That takes into account China's response in locking down certain regions, as well as the dwindling options for commercial transportation into and out of the region.

China Increasingly Isolated

Regardless of corporate policies and online booking restrictions in place, corporate travel to China may not be possible for some companies, at least for the short term. 

Airlines are restricting lift to the mainland (see sidebar, updated on Jan. 30), some through March. British Airways and Lufthansa (including Swiss and Austrian) have suspended all flights to mainland China, the former until Jan. 31 as it assesses the situation further and the latter through Feb. 9. United has suspended 24 flights to Beijing, Hong Kong and Shanghai from Feb. 1 to Feb. 8, while American Airlines has suspended flights out of Los Angeles to Beijing and Shanghai from Feb. 9 through Mar. 27. Cathay Pacific will progressively reduce its lift into China by 50 percent through the end of March. 

At the same time, many hotel companies have eased cancellation penalties in the region for inbound travelers, and more broadly for Chinese citizens who are now under a government-implemented group travel ban. Accor, Hilton, Hyatt, InterContinental Hotels Group and Marriott each have issued such announcements. More locally, Trip.com Group, the parent company of CTrip, Skyscanner and Qunar, has urged its global partners to ease cancellation penalties through early February in the wake of the outbreak. As of Jan. 28, dozens of airline and hotel partners, including Asiana Airlines, Singapore Airlines, Accor, Hilton, Hyatt, IHG, Jumeirah, Marriott, Melia and Shangri-La had joined the initiative. The company said it expects more to follow suit.

Meetings, Incentive Travel Hit Hard

"Avoiding large gatherings of people is a basic protocol for reducing the spread of disease," said Riskline Eurasia's Scansani. 

That, itself, puts meetings and incentives at the center of a cancellation bullseye. And not just in China, according to Scansani. "The impact is really big… [including] in markets in close proximity to China," he said. Hong Kong, for example, heavily restricted border crossings from China as of midnight Thursday. "Economically, [the travel industry] was already suffering heavily due to the protest, now it's going to get worse. Hotels, food and beverage outlets … they are locking down." 

Regional tourism boards in Thailand, as well, are bracing for a steep drop-off in such groups. The Bangkok Post reported that outbound Chinese incentive groups historically have been a mainstay for the hospitality industry in February and the local tourism board awaits confirmation from groups comprising at least 5,500 travelers from China. 

The hesitation has spread as far as the U.K., according to Hyzler, where at press time there were currently no confirmed coronavirus cases. "We had a call Monday … [and] the client asked about a conference they were holding in the U.K. They wanted advice on whether to cancel because they expected [participants from] 180 countries and 56 individuals from China," he said. "I suspected the Chinese participants might not come because they wouldn't be allowed to leave China." 

As the situation escalates, Spangler suspected the same. "There will be no travel to China for meetings; and no Chinese travelers out of China going to meetings." He added that more countries, especially smaller ones, would potentially close their borders to Chinese travelers, at least for the short term. As of Wednesday, he said, North Korea has been the only country to take that particular measure. 

Why So Concerned?

Spangler put the novel coronavirus numbers in context of the perennial threat of the flu, which is well understood. 

"If you compare this outbreak to influenza A and B, every year A and B affects millions of people globally and kills hundreds of thousands. This is the same type of bug and requires the same precautions: vigilant hand washing and avoiding proximity to individuals who are clearly ill." 

It's different, however, in what experts don't understand about the virus. They don't understand how or when there might be a vaccine to mitigate its affects. They don't fully understand how infectious it is. 

"The strains of this coronavirus suggest it is young. It's not mutated much," said Hyzler. "Now that it's in humans, it has more potential to mutate; if it does, it can be a more severe infection. Also, we don't know if there are superspreaders-people who, for some reason, transmitted to a lot of people. The Chinese government also said there is evidence that the virus can be spread before there are symptoms, but the CDC says there's no evidence for that, so there is also uncertainty."

Current protocols assume an incubation period of 14 days, during which an infected person may be contagious prior to exhibiting symptoms. 

What we do know for sure is that the infection is spreading outside of China and that the spread is a function of international travel. Business travelers returning to their home countries can expect additional screening at immigration as well as temporary quarantine measures. Individuals who do not want to be exposed to these protocols should avoid business travel to China. 

For business travelers anywhere concerned about the spread of coronavirus or any infectious disease, Hyzler underscored vigilance. "Wearing a mask may not protect you from a virus, but it will keep your hands away from your face and remind you of the risks. Wash hands, use alcohol-based rubs. No one is going to look at you like a germaphobe anymore."

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Dawit Habtemariam contributed additional reporting to this story.