Tour operators say closing ports to China cruises not massive blow, but warn of larger Covid-19 fallout

R. Loheswar
The MS Westerdam cruise liner operated by Carnival Corp unit Holland America Inc had berthed in Hong Kong on January 31 before beginning a 14-day East Asia cruise from February 1. — Reuters pic

KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 18 — Putrajaya’s move to close local ports to ex-China cruises will not hit the industry here hard, said travel operators who expressed greater concern about the coronavirus disease’s (Covid-19) impact on Malaysian tourism in general.

Travel agents told Malay Mail that cruises to and from China were a minor offering, saying most tourists preferred to travel by air than sea between the two destinations.

“Most of the clients like to book the Mediterranean cruises,” said Helena Chan of First Travel Agency.

“There aren’t a lot of direct cruises from here to China as far as I’m aware of. Some choose to depart from Singapore then head to Australia, New Zealand then China and Japan following the cruise.”

Yesterday, Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail announced that Malaysia will not accept ex-China cruise ships or those that berthed there prior to Malaysia, after a cruise passenger was confirmed to have Covid-19 upon arriving here.

Chan explained that the aviation industry was experiencing far greater disruption due to the Covid-19 outbreak as airlines have offered to refund passengers who chose not to travel to and from China.

“Since cancellations are allowed for flights till March, most of the customers are taking these refunds. So there’s going to be some effect on the market. 

Lee Soon Son of travel agency 12FLY told Malay Mail that cruises offered here were typically bound for Japan rather than China, but said his agency was anticipating a 30 per cent decline in sales due to the Covid-19 epidemic in China.

While acknowledging that China cruises did not have a significant share of the market, Lee said any further decline in the current climate could create a domino effect.

“It does affect the industry especially since now we can see the passengers even sceptical to board or embark in SIngapore.

“The market is definitely slow as business is not just affecting China but Singapore and countries with ships that sail to Malaysia,” Lee added.

A Holiday Tours and Travel agent who asked to be named only as Kiefe also predicted a 30 per cent fall in sales as her firm sold packages with the Royal Carribean cruise operator that has stopped travel to Shanghai. 

She said China tours were a larger part of her firm’s offerings but said it also offered cruises to other parts of the world, which would help to soften the blow of the government’s decision.

“It can be a significant market for big cruise ship companies but for us we offer many European destinations as well so at the moment it’s slow for China,” Kiefe told Malay Mail.

“For now all bookings will be cancelled to China and we shall see what the situation is by mid-year.”

According to a Tourism Malaysia report from 2017, 253 international cruise ships called at the country’s 11 ports between January and May that year, up 9.48 per cent from the same period in 2016. 

The MS Westerdam cruise liner operated by Carnival Corp unit Holland America Inc had berthed in Hong Kong on January 31 before beginning a 14-day East Asia cruise from February 1.

The cruise ship then arrived in Sihanoukville, Cambodia on February 13, carrying 1,455 passengers and 802 crew.

It had spent two weeks at sea after being turned away by Japan, Taiwan, Guam, the Philippines and Thailand.

The company initially chartered four Malaysia Airlines flights to KLIA here in order to send its passengers home, but only managed one before one — an 83-year-old American woman — tested positive for Covid-19 upon arrival.

Malaysia then announced that the country will no longer allow ex-China cruises to enter local ports.

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