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Covid-19 wreaking havoc on travel plans

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Cathy Dobson

The travel industry is in the crosshairs of the COVID-19 outbreak and at least one local agent says she’s in crisis mode.

Franca De Sena, manager at De Sena’s Travel in Sarnia, stopped booking flights to Italy for clients weeks before the Italian borders closed.

She also suggested clients reconsider cruise ship vacations when the Diamond Princess was quarantined in February. She made that decision long before Canadian public health officials recommended against cruises, and long before the cruise lines suspended operations.

“We’re talking about human lives,” said De Sena, a local travel agent for more than 25 years.  “Obviously this affects business immensely, but it will pick up again.

“It’s true you don’t sell,” she said. “But there are more important things at stake here. We’ll get past this eventually and these same people will still want to go to Italy, and we’ll bounce back.”

Airlines, agents, cruise companies, hotels and restaurants are reeling as fear of the virus spreads and business and pleasure travel is discouraged or banned.

Air Canada flights to and from Italy are cancelled until May 1 for “ongoing health and safety concerns.”

Meanwhile, the Princess, Viking and Disney cruise lines announced they are suspending operations.

Last week, prices were slashed in a bid to lure customers fearful of the virus or port-of-call quarantine.

Royal Caribbean, for example, had a seven-day Alaskan cruise in May discounted from $1,445 to $369 per person, while Carnival offered an $869 Caribbean cruise for $109 per person.

De Sena said she wouldn’t sell one even if asked.

“It’s quiet when it should be busy with summer bookings. There are amazing prices out there, but people on cruise ships have been sick and it’s been a nightmare for those people stuck on them.

“It’s far more important to me to take care of my customers.”

Before Ontario announced all publicly funded schools would shut down for two weeks after March Break, the Lambton Kent District School Board cancelled school trips to Italy, Greece, France, Sweden, Spain and Portugal.

Student safety was the top priority, and arrangements were being made for partial refunds or travel vouchers where possible, said spokesperson Heather Hughes.

Vacation bookings to Florida, Mexico and the Caribbean were as strong until a flood of cancellations arrived March 12, De Sena said.

That’s the day the government warned against international travel and warned of possible border restrictions. Most who cancelled said they didn’t want to risk being stranded or stuck in 14-day quarantine.

How long the crisis will last is anybody’s guess, but De Sena noted the travel industry has weathered 9-11, SARS and other catastrophes.

“I have optimism,” she said. “When you see a lockdown like the one in Italy it means they are trying to stop the spread.

“And we all have to hope it works.”

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