The U.S. State Department warned Americans on Feb. 29 to reconsider travel to all of Italy, telling them to avoid the Lombardy and Veneto regions altogether. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said travelers should “avoid nonessential travel” to the country, citing “widespread community transmission” of the illness. Some U.S.-based airlines have suspended flights to Milan.
Even before the outbreak in Italy, bookings to Europe had decreased by nearly 24 percent between Jan. 20 and Feb. 22, the company said. But over the final week of February, the number of new flight bookings to the continent fell by 79 percent.
“The arrival of the covid-19 virus in Italy marks a new phase in the travel crisis in Europe,” Olivier Ponti, vice president of insights at ForwardKeys, said in a statement. “The drop-off in bookings to Italy is even worse than we have observed in the past for some of the most disruptive events, such as terror attacks.”
It wasn’t clear which source markets were responsible for the bulk of the decline in Italy, but the company said bookings from North American to Europe were down nearly 64 percent.
Although visits to Europe were pacing slightly higher than a year ago for most of January, arrivals to Europe dropped by 17.6 percent between Jan. 29 and Feb. 23. That escalated between Feb. 24 and 29, as arrivals in Europe plunged by nearly 26 percent compared with the previous year.
Tourism leaders in Italy expect to lose more than 31 million tourists between March and May, the Italian news agency ANSA reported. And tourism officials there have said they’ve seen bookings fall significantly in March beyond just the northern regions most affected. Many in Italy are expressing frustration that the entire country has been suffering when the vast majority of cases are limited to pockets in the north.
“It seems like a paradox, but I agree that now Italy is probably the safest country to go to while elsewhere the threat is hidden and therefore even more insidious,” Vito Cinque, owner of the Il San Pietro di Positano hotel, said in an email. “In these days on the Amalfi Coast, life goes on as quiet as ever and tourists continue to enjoy its beauty, not without wondering what all the excessive clamor being made by the uninformed is for.”
Travel agents in the United States say they have seen near-term cancellations in Italy and throughout Europe but said many clients are choosing to keep their summer plans in place for now. Some are even making new plans to travel to Italy in the summer, but they are ensuring cancellation policies are flexible.
“Italy is our number one destination in the summer,” says Jack Ezon, founder and managing director of New York City-based Embark Beyond. “It’s always been the anchor of safety and comfort for Americans. That's why it was a very impactful destination to be hit."
Ezon said about 69 percent of his clients who were supposed to travel to Europe over the next month have canceled, though 58 percent of them rebooked to the Caribbean, Mexico or somewhere in the United States. Just 3 percent of those traveling to Europe after March 30 have canceled, he said. Nearly half of his clients canceled their original plans worldwide, with more than 74 percent rebooking.
Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg, co-president and co-owner of Valerie Wilson Travel, said Italy is a large part of her company’s business and that the past few weeks had been “difficult.”
“We have some people who are choosing to cancel going to Italy right now,” she said. “What we’re trying to message in reaction to canceling is, ‘Let’s defer, let’s postpone.’”