As travellers find their trips upended almost overnight as border closures and city lockdowns are announced across the world over recent days to curb the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, travel players are finding that their business reflexes are being called to the test.
Travel agents in destinations across the region most affected by tough government restrictions on people mobility are fighting against time and limited resources to get their customers home or onward to their next destination, while others in the travel and tourism supply chain have devised friendlier compensation means to soften the heartache of disrupted trips.
Cambodia’s tourism players have been working around the clock to help clients impacted by the swathe of sudden travel restrictions.
From Tuesday, Cambodia banned visitors from Italy, Germany, Spain, France and the US from entering the country for 30 days.
Ronni Dalhoff, managing director of Diethelm Travel Cambodia, said staff have been working tirelessly to ensure clients are kept informed and necessary changes are implemented.
He said: “My team went to work on Saturday and compiled a list of (affected customers). When our agents in Europe came to work on Monday, they had a complete overview of people they had to contact.”
The company also flew clients in the middle of programmes home and has cancelled all itineraries for free until April 30.
Steve Lidgey, general manager of Asia a la Carte Travel, currently has 16 German travellers in Cambodia, who have received government advice to return home.
He said: “It seems they prefer Cambodia and are scared more of Germany. This is very complicated as they need to leave soon.”
Many guests from Germany and Australia due to arrive from Vietnam are no longer able to cross the border. The Australian government has also issued an advice to return, so they will fly back from Vietnam.
Sophear Mom Sreat, founder of Sophiya Travel & Tours, said staff have been keeping clients up-to-date and remain on standby to answer any queries. – Marissa Carruthers
Malaysian hotels are allowed to continue limited operations, and serve guests who have checked in before March 18, during the nationwide movement control order which kicked in yesterday until March 31.
As well, hotels’ F&B services are limited to room service, and all other facilities and services are to remain closed during the lockdown period.
Agents shared with TTG Asia that the majority of overseas travellers opted to cut short their holidays in Malaysia and leave the country before the movement control order came into force as there were fears of travel restrictions, airline disruptions and cancellation of services.
Adam Kamal, general manager, Suka Travel, said that the first day of the movement control order had resulted in many cancellations and rescheduling of flights due to low capacity.
He said: “We had a few guests from Asian countries who were affected yesterday but our team managed to sort out their departures.”
An inbound agent, Yap Sook Ling, managing director, Asian Overland Services Tours & Travel, said she had a group of 15 Swiss tourists who decided to cut short their holiday in Malaysia upon hearing the news, and sought to return to Switzerland.
She said they initially wanted to depart via Singapore but local authorities had imposed travel restrictions on the Swiss, even for transit passengers. As such, her company was now helping the group get back home via Bangkok.
Travel problems are compounded due to the reduction of flight frequencies and cancellations. Group CEO of Malaysia Airlines Izham Ismail recently issued a press statement stating that the national carrier has also significantly reduced its overall network. International flights to India are also suspended between March 17-31, 2020, and the Philippines between March 21-31, 2020, following the respective governments’ ban on travel to and from Malaysia.
Prior to the order, Malaysia Airlines had already suspended services to Saudi Arabia, South Korea, as well as Beijing Daxing and Kota Kinabalu to Shanghai, due to border controls and reduced capacity to Australia and New Zealand resulting from the self-isolation policy of the two countries.
“The situation has been rather fluid these past two days since we have had to make last-minute cancellations to abide by the restrictions. The uncoordinated approach has posed great challenges to our operations, but we are doing our best to re-route passengers via reallocation onto other carriers. This is an added cost to our operations,” he said.
Izham added: “We are also adjusting our low-load flights by cancelling and merging them to manage costs while managing our customers’ expectations. To date, we have cancelled more than 4,000 flights.
“Our Global Contact Centre has been bearing the brunt of this situation with the number of calls peaking at 25,000 daily and up to 2,000 emails daily in the past three weeks.” – S Puvaneswary
Getting stranded in the Philippines can be daunting as tourist destinations are scattered among islands reachable by one or two flights from Manila, with the problem exacerbated by fluid lockdown regulations.
Following Luzon’s lockdown, tourism players got drawn to the personal Facebook account of Jojo Clemente, president of Rajah Tours and Tourism Congress of the Philippines (TCP), as his close coordination with the Department of Tourism (DoT) enabled him to advise and share vital information in helping tourists caught in the island’s lockdown.
Clemente gave round-the-clock changes in air routes, hotel closures, additional destinations that have also locked down, and instant updates on inter-agency meetings. Travel agents consulted with him to ask for the latest information and developments, as well as to verify facts.
When air routes to Manila were shut and flights redirected, Clemente asked travel consultants to give the location of stranded tourists in order to mount recovery flights with the domestic airlines and the military.
The government initially gave foreign tourists three days to leave the Philippines, but DoT was able to persuade officials to let tourists leave during the one-month lockdown, as reported on Clemente’s Facebook account.
“It’s par for the course,” he said, on how social media can help in troubled times.
On the other hand, Irine Maliwanag, owner of IM Active Travel and Business Events, noted that she has to assure passengers with pending airline refunds that “we are not closing shop”.
She suggested that Cebu Pacific should give “immediate refunds to people with cancelled bookings, as a result of the lockdown, instead of having them call a hotline which is difficult to get connected to”.
Immediate refunds need not go through certain processes and verification, Maliwanag said, as it can be done with additional scripting in the airline’s system as long as there are records of the passengers who made the booking, their identification cards and other information that they can trace online. – Rosa Ocampo
Travel players are rolling out measures to compensate travellers for changes to their bookings. For customers who have booked a tour departing between March 16 to Apr 30, G Adventures is offering 110 per cent travel credit for all land services, including pre or post nights and transfers, for the next two years.
Travellers who had departed on tours before March 16 and who now wish to return home early, can opt to leave the tour with a pro-rata travel credit for the remaining days of the land portion of the trip.
G Adventures’s director of emerging markets, Bryce Young, said: “It is a difficult, but necessary, decision. The safety and security of our travellers and staff is our top priority and this is a precautionary measure to protect our people at this time. The situation surrounding Ciovid-19 is rapidly evolving; governmental rules and regulations around travel and entry requirements are changing frequently and we may yet have to make changes or suspend tours beyond May 1, 2020.”
Diethelm Travel (Singapore) is working closely with suppliers, agents and clients to ensure a smooth return for travellers whose journeys have been interrupted.
Judy Lum, its director, shared: “For those who are already in Asia but are unable to continue their holiday due to travel advisories and entry regulations, we will contact the clients in-resort and liaise with their travel agents back home to re-route or re-issue air tickets for their onward journey.”
Singapore’s low-cost airline Scoot has taken the initiative to launch a self-service refund system to circumnavigate the decision of countries in the region, such as the Philippines, to cease business operations during this period.
“Due to the rapidly developing situation and high call volumes, customers have been experiencing longer than usual wait times with our call centres. Recognising that the volume would only grow and we needed to alleviate the stress on our customers, we mobilised our backend teams to create a self-service portal for eligible customers to submit their refund requests online at their convenience,” explained a Scoot spokesperson.
The portal launched on Tuesday, and as of 17.00 that same day more than 12,000 refund requests have been submitted and more than 2,000 customers have received their refunds. – Pamela Chow