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B.C.’s tourism industry braces for hit amid mounting COVID-19 fears

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WATCH: Spread of COVID-19 having major impact on travel industry – Mar 5, 2020

British Columbia is bracing for a potential serious blow to one of its most important industries, as concerns about COVID-19 continue to ramp up.

Federal Tourism Minister Melanie Joly is in Vancouver and Victoria this week to meet with the industry as well as Vancouver’s mayor to discuss the effect the outbreak could have.

“We know the tourism sector will be impacted, but meanwhile we will take measures as appropriate to help mitigate the impact,” Joly said.

She said the country was particularly worried about a drop in Chinese international tourists, and said while there was no firm data yet, anecdotal evidence suggests the impact is already being felt.

READ MORE: 235 Canadians stuck on Grand Princess cruise ship over coronavirus fears

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“Right now at Vancouver International Airport, the duty free is seeing a 50-per cent decrease in terms of its revenues,” she said.

The cruise industry could also take a beating in the wake of major COVID-19 incidents aboard the Diamond Princess and now new concerns about another cruise ship, the Grand Princess, being held off the coast of California.

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B.C. Man trapped on Diamond Princess cruise returns home after being quarantined for COVID-19 – Mar 4, 2020

According to the Port of Vancouver, the 288 cruise ships that came through the port in 2019 were worth about $864 million in direct activity in the local economy.

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said high level conversations involving the transportation officials, the Canada Border Service Agency, the Public Health Agency of Canada and the provincial governments was ongoing about how to reduce the risk.

“It is a worry, for sure,” she said.

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“There [are] ongoing discussions with industry about the risks as well, what mitigation things can be in place, is it enough to screen people who are coming aboard a cruise, is it working … all of those things will be in place before the season.”
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Concerns grow over COVID-19’s effect on tourism – Mar 5, 2020

Province-wide, B.C.’s Ministry of Tourism said tourism generated $1.2 billion in taxes and added $9 billion to the province’s GDP in 2017.

“We know that the high season is important and we’re trying to preserve it,” Joly said.

READ MORE: COVID-19: You’ve been asked to self-isolate. Now how do you pay the bills?

Joly said federal officials were now looking at ways to boost domestic tourism and tourism from the U.S. in order to help offset some of the projected international declines.

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She said she’s already been told by operators at the Big White ski resort that they’re seeing increased numbers as Canadiantravellers scrap overseas vacations in favour of Canadian ones.

“Our big White Centre reservations has seen some cancellations out of Europe and one long stay from the Canary Islands but surprisingly we’re starting to see people cancelling their European, Mexican or Hawaiian vacations,” said Big White senior vice-president Michael J. Ballingall.

“They’re coming to the snow. We’re seeing this from almost every province in the west and Ontario.”

B.C. has resisted travel restrictions such as closing borders or blocking flights from affected countries, warning the practice does more harm than good by encouraging people to travel into the country indirectly and miss border screening.

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Know the difference between a cold, a flu and COVID 19 – Mar 5, 2020

Meanwhile, major travel operators are scrambling to find ways to attract customers amid growing fear about the virus.

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“I have never seen companies coming out with such aggressive policies that they’re putting in place. It started with the airlines, and now almost every major travel supplier,” said Claire Newell with Travel Best Bests.

READ MORE: B.C. confirms 13th case of COVID-19, woman in her 80s in critical condition

Newell said she’s seen some companies offering flexible booking deals in the next few weeks that would allow vacationers to change their travel destination or dates, in some case right up to hours before their flight.

“We’ve never seen this before in the travel industry,” she said.

“Passengers are really afraid at the moment.”

That flexibility, she said, is one way companies can try and give would-be holidaymakers peace of mind, particularly since travel insurance does not cover cancellations due to an epidemic.

Newell said she expects to also see prices dropping in the coming weeks as travel operators seek to woo skittish customers.

She said travellers who have already booked trips or are considering one should make sure they read the fine print on their insurance, and contact their provider if they have questions.