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Business Is Down At Travel Agencies Specializing In China Due To Coronavirus

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

As the number of deaths due to the coronavirus outbreak continues to rise, the U.S. State Department is telling travelers not to go to China, and the CDC is recommending that Americans avoid all nonessential travel to China. As Robert Garrova with member station KPCC reports, the disease is hitting travel agencies in the Los Angeles area hard.

ROBERT GARROVA, BYLINE: Sitting in front of his work computer, travel agent Anthony Ng is anxiously reading through the latest coronavirus news from China. Work is so slow right now that agents here brought their kids in with them...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: What's that door? (ph)

GARROVA: ...Who roamed around the office playing with toys. Ng says he's been in business for 11 years, and this is the worst catastrophe he's had to weather.

ANTHONY NG: Coronavirus is actually tremendously affecting our business. We had multiple cancellations, multiple refunds. Even trips out to summer are all canceled right now.

GARROVA: Ng's company, Elite 5 Star Travel, is located in a strip mall in Monterey Park, an area with a large Asian American population. He says the fears surrounding coronavirus spread are visible within the community here. Ng keeps a face mask on his desk, mostly to reassure customers.

NG: I felt weird going to the post office the other day not wearing a mask.

GARROVA: Even before the CDC made the recommendation to avoid travel to China, he was telling customers to rethink their plans, and he's constantly checking for new information on the outbreak.

NG: Every single day, my responsibility is to update my clients. No. 1 thing is health. Money can be made. Life, you know, cannot, and it's really important for us to, you know, put in our extra work.

GARROVA: Less than a mile from Ng's travel agency at Sky and Sea Travel, agent Cindy Lu is going through a list of her clients.

CINDY LU: The name list, I just - oh, this one cancel, cancel, cancel.

GARROVA: Lu says the coronavirus is a huge worry, and it's making a lot of work for her as she tries to get customers refunds on canceled flights.

LU: Some people just not going to China, also going to another country - just Asia. They still cancel.

HENRY HARTEVELDT: If all they specialize in is travel to or from China and they have very limited financial reserves, it's possible some may opt to close.

GARROVA: Henry Harteveldt is a travel analyst with Atmosphere Research Group. He says the coronavirus outbreak will hit mom and pop travel agencies especially hard.

HARTEVELDT: This is the first time that I can recall seeing either countries or individual airlines announce suspension of all flights to a specific country specifically because of a health matter.

GARROVA: Thousands of travelers are being forced to rethink their plans right now. That includes John DiScala, who's been planning a trip to Southeast Asia for months.

JOHN DISCALA: I'm going to cancel the trip because I have two little kids at home.

GARROVA: DiScala, who's a travel writer, recently wrote a piece on his blog asking readers whether he should cancel his Asia travel plans.

DISCALA: I would say 98% of the people said do not go, so that was - like, OK. I'm staying home. I'm not even going to take a chance.

GARROVA: All of those jittery travelers means a lot of lost business for Anthony Ng at Elite 5 Star Travel. In January alone, Ng says his agency has had 50 clients cancel trips.

NG: For us, we're crossing our fingers. We're praying that we'll just make it throughout the year.

GARROVA: Ng worries his business will continue to take a hit even after the coronavirus outbreak is contained because memories of the disease will linger in travelers' minds.

For NPR News, I'm Robert Garrova in Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROYKSOPP'S "THE DRUG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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