Go to Homepage
An exclusive collection of the best Asian hotels, resorts and spas

Best in Travel Poll 2019 - Asia's top airlines, luxury hotels, destinations

HEALTH

Covid-19 - how Asian countries and hotels are dealing with the novel coronavirus spread

How the Covid-19 virus is reshaping travel and how hotels and airlines in Asia are responding. As the WHO declared a pandemic, countries had sealed their borders with USA issuing a Level 4 'do not travel' advisory, India extending its curfew till 18 May, Manila in lockdown till 31 May, the Tokyo Olympics pushed to 2021, China stopping entry for foreigners, and Thailand demanding a whopping US$100,000 health insurance from some nationals as major hotels closed and an emergency was declared.

Visit our Fackbook pagePrintE-mail Page

by Vijay Verghese

First posted 28 February 2020, updated 15 May 2020

SEE ALSO Asia medical tourism | Asia travel health risks |Bali volcano - is it safe to travel? | Asian tsunami updates | Travel pricing in Covid times | Covid travel restart

Covid19 response at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport as masks came on late February 2020

Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport late February 2020 as passengers and staff donned masks before tighter controls brought international flights largely to a halt late March.

JUMP TO Sars super-spreader | Flu facts | Protection | Hotel responses by country | Airlines | Cruises

SUPER-SPREADER is a term that gained notoriety and panicked currency during the 2002-2004 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak that was largely focused on Hong Kong, neighbouring Guangdong, and Vietnam.

Later determined to have originated from bats, this virulent ‘zoonotic’ coronavirus was a chilling manifestation of a transmission from animals to humans with unknown consequences. Bats have been the prime culprits in a number of zoonosis events from Nipah and the haemorrhagic Ebola to Hendra (in horses), rabies and SARS.

As the Wuhan novel coronavirus – termed Covid-19 by the World Health Organisation – burned out of control January 2020 in China’s Hubei province inviting draconian quarantines, rumour, travel advisories, military intervention, and travel bans (for China and later Iran, Lombardy and other emerging hot spots as the virus seeped into Europe, Israel, Brazil, and all continents barring Antarctica), the attention of health experts once again turned to bats and super-spreaders.

By midnight 27 March as China banned all foreigners from entry and suspended all existing visas, world BORDERS HAD CLOSED. The US had stopped all travel from Europe from 13 March to battle a 'foreign virus' with a Level 4 'Do not travel' advisory issued 19 March followed by nationwide city shutdowns (and partial state reopenings end April and May), Italy was entirely sealed, Spain asked its citizens to stay at home, Germany closed most land borders 16 March, India had cancelled almost all VISAS (including for Indians of foreign origin) and closed its land borders with all international flights stopped for a week from 22 March with the country in lockdown for 21 days under curfew orders from 25 March (later extended to 18 May), and Thailand had cancelled visas-on-arrival for 18 countries with a self-quarantine requirement for travellers from some "high risk" countries. From 30 March Australia banned gatherings of more than two persons. And by April the EU had drastically scaled back flights to 'third countries'.

Send us your Feedback / Letter to the Editor

The first recorded SARS super-spreader is believed to have been Zhou Zuofeng. He apparently picked up an unknown respiratory bug in Zhongshan (where a cluster of cases had been reported) and was later brought to a Guangzhou hospital, on 30 January 2003, rapidly passing on the infection to over 30 caregivers and medical professionals. One of those, a Dr Liu, arrived in Hong Kong for a family event and booked into room 911 of the soon-to-be-ostracised Metropole Hotel at 75 Waterloo Road (the hotel was later renamed Metropark Kowloon and Room 911 disappeared without a trace).

The hapless Dr Liu was determined to have been the cause of as many as 80 percent of the subsequent Hong Kong SARS cases. From that ill-fated ninth floor the virus travelled with speed and stealth to Hanoi, Toronto and Singapore. That’s when the world woke up to the insidious menace of SARS as the medical fraternity scrambled to find answers.

As David Quammen the author of Spillover – a gripping book on zoonotic events – put it simply, “In late February 2003, SARS got on a plane in Hong Kong and went to Toronto.” A book with deeper insights into the Hong Kong episode is Twenty-First Century Plague – The Story of SARS by veteran journalist Thomas Abraham.

Across Hong Kong harbour, the Metropark Wanchai, which also suffered a minor outbreak and the indignity of a heavily televised quarantine, subsequently changed its name to Kew Green. SARS was energetically effaced from the territory with a zeal worthy of the history-rewriting pharaohs by all who had any remote connection to it. But memories are long.

The search for possible super-spreaders is on again as doctors, epidemiologists, transport operators and governments race to shut down transmission vectors and find a vaccine. This issue was troublingly evident when an explosive SOUTH KOREA coronavirus outbreak was traced to the reclusive Shincheonji Church of Jesus in Daegu following which all its worship halls were shut down across the country. The locus of the outbreak was determined to be a 61-year-old woman who was estimated to be responsible for over 450 infections. In late March a Sikh preacher in the northern Indian state of Punjab died of the novel coronavirus resulting in the quarantining of over 15,000 people in several villages. Super-spreaders are back.

Starting with the quarantine of the entire Hubei province (with a population of close to 60 million), the banning of Chinese visitors by several countries, flight cancellations (much of this commercially driven due to low passenger loads), and the cancellation of sports events, religious congregation, and major pilgrimages, our world has been entirely upended. The WHO, rightly, has urged countries to show ‘solidarity’ and avoid any ‘stigmatization’, finally declaring a pandemic mid-March.

Armed with the knowledge of SARS and ignorance surrounding the latest zoonotic breakout, reactions have ranged from pragmatic (washing hands regularly) to the bizarre (imbibing rassam, a spicy South Indian lentil stew to kill the virus). What is evident is that the stable doors have been closed after the horse has bolted. The virus is on the loose, a vaccine is at least a year away, genomic mutations may occur, and initial research suggests Covid-19 may not burn out like SARS.

Wuhan has spawned something we may have to live with for a long while. Clearly containment – vigorous or misdirected as the efforts have been as with the ill-starred cruise ships Diamond Princess at Yokohama and Grand Princess off San Francisco – is going to have little effect. The world is going to have to move from knee-jerk reactions to mitigation and sensible everyday precautions.

It is entirely possible Covid-19 (earlier known as 2019-nCoV) will become endemic and join the four main coronaviruses currently in circulation that account for as much as 25 percent of colds. While a small percentage of sufferers may develop serious respiratory issues like pneumonia, the new menace appears relatively benign and somewhat manageable with vaccines, education, and healthy habits. As with seasonal flu that thrives in cold dry conditions, this new strain may subside during hot, humid, summer months, offering respite for researchers and exhausted frontline healthcare workers. Yet, it may not.

While common sense must be a first line of defence, there is no room for complacence. A seasonal flu pandemic simulation last year (by Johns Hopkins, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the World Economic Forum) painted a grim picture of a mythical vaccine-resistant coronavirus originating in China that could kill 65 million people in a year. Bear in mind the Spanish flu of 1918 claimed 50 million lives. The 2009 Swine Flu pandemic that swept from Veracruz, Mexico, across North America and the world was a virulent H1N1 strain and no respecter of age, catching the young and fit in its dragnet along with the elderly, but there was little worldwide fuss despite dire WHO pronouncements at the time. Should the current coronavirus be treated differently?

SOME FACTS on the novel coronavirus: thus far while total infections are hard to assess, Covid-19 has had a fatality rate ranging between 2.14%-3.4% (of diagnosed cases) compared with the current US seasonal winter flu outbreak (0.07%); SARS (9.6%); Swine Flu H1N1 (17.4%); and Mers (34%). To put this in context the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) estimates the 2019-2020 US deaths from flu will range between 14,000 and 36,000 out of 26m to 36m infections.

The BEST PROTECTION is to eliminate non-essential travel, avoid large communal gatherings, clean hands frequently with soap and water (not anti-bacterials), avoid touching the eyes, nose and mouth (the most common transmission vectors), drink warm to hot water or tea regularly, and to wear a mask (though its efficacy is minimal) in crowded spaces like like markets and transportation hubs, and on trains, buses and aircraft. N95 masks are the only ones shown to have some level of protection. Working from home is one corporate remedy already in effect in many metros. While panic is uncalled for, caution is advised as not enough is known about this new strain. Non-essential travel and large group activity can be deferred. And some savvy travellers wishing to err on the side of extreme caution are self-quarantining for 14 days after a trip and avoiding contact with elderly family members who are most at risk.

A serious and sustained pandemic will challenge and dramatically impact business practices, STOCK MARKETS (American Airlines dropped 9.1% and Marriott plunged 7.9% in just one day 25 February with the S&P 500 plummeting 12% on 16 March), country GNP forecasts, supply chains, schools, population flows (travel and migration), insurance, governance, and political models with more open systems favoured, as the post-Wuhan free-speech petition in China suggests. It is unlikely that petition will gain significant traction within the Chinese Communist Party leadership but it is a portent of social upheavals and ideological scuffles to come.

Yet the lure of feel-good travel persists. A snap poll of Smart Travel Asia’s worldwide readers in January and February showed that while 37 percent plan ‘no travel for now’, as many as 40.7 percent are considering leisure breaks, with 11.1 percent continuing with business travel, 7.4 percent attending meetings and conferences, and 3.7 percent planning travel for destination weddings. Leading the leisure charge are Europeans and Australians, followed by Indians. Our reader poll in February tossed up a mixed result on hotel temperature checks with 54.8% saying this made them 'feel safer' but a significant 45.2% saying temperature scans are 'unnecessary'. By late March the number of those feeling safer with temperature checks had climbed to 63%.

Many top drawer Asian hotels contacted by this magazine in February 2020 retreated into the anodyne – taking ‘all necessary precautions’… ‘following official guidelines’… launching ‘preventative measures’… and ‘closely monitoring the situation.’ A few indicated they had a management gag order on Covid-19. But behind the PR spin and seeming head-in-the-sand bullheadedness there is a real fear gripping the travel industry as occupancies plunge.

While safety routines are patchy at the top end, the situation is far worse at wallet-friendly Airbnb establishments and unregulated lodgings. This coronavirus has no interest in the bottom line. It is opportunistic, highly mobile, and on the loose.

So how are regional hotels, airlines, and countries handling this?

While several hotels are on high alert, worryingly this is not the case in resort areas – and even in some high-risk urban centres like Bangkok, or farther afield in INDIA – where procedures remained egregiously lax for weeks for fear of alarming guests and losing business. By early March 2020 the coronavirus had arrived in New Delhi (late February chaotic screening was in place at 21 airports for passengers from select countries including Italy, China, Singapore, Thailand, Iran, Indonesia and Nepal and by 5 March screening was extended to all international flights as an Italian tour group was found to be striken with Covid-19 in RAJASTHAN).

On 10 March the Government of India Ministry of Health advised all passengers who have visited or transited a wide list of countries (including China, South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Spain Italy and Germany) to self-quarantine for 14 days. At the same time visas and e-visas were revoked for foreign nationals who may have visited countries affected by the novel coronavirus but not yet entered India. In a sweeping move, by midnight 13 March India had cancelled all existing visas, except diplomatic and some special categories, until 15 April. This included visas for foreigners of Indian origin. By 6 March Himalayan getaway SIKKIM had decided to ban all foreigners and cancel all permits for Nathu-La (pass) on the India-China border. And by mid-March the Manipur India-Myanmar border was closed along with land borders to Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh. From from 22 March all international flights were cancelled for one week. India decided to go into lockdown the same day and this was extended on 25 March to a 21-day strict nationwide stay-at-home curfew for all, including in key financial metros like New Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai till 14 April 2020 (resulting in chaos for migrant labourers). The curfew was later extended in two steps till 18 May. Limited train service resumed from 12 May and some domestic flights 25 May.

Preparations were slow to get started at hotels. By 6 March the leisurely pace had speeded up in the Indian capital and temperature screening (airport-style thermal scanners) had commenced at The Imperial NEW DELHI though not at The Oberoi New Delhi and the Hyatt Regency where heightened sanitisation and employee monitoring was the norm. At the Taj Lake Palace UDAIPUR too increased cleaning and vigilance was in place but no temperature monitoring. By 22 March these hotels and many others around the country were not taking new reservations and restaurants were closed. Some international chains continued to service existing inhouse guests and temperature monitoring was largely in place. 

By midnight 27 March China had cancelled all exisiting visas for foreigners and banned entry for most travellers. The Four Seasons Hotel SHENZHEN that had been shut for weeks reopened room bookings 23 February but there was a hold on meetings and banquets. The JW Marriott Hotel Shenzhen Bao'an was shut from 6 February and reopened quietly 1 March 2020 (rooms plus cafe and later the gym) with some other high end properties. At The St Regis Shenzhen temperature checks for all guests are in place. The Ritz-Carlton Shenzhen reopened its rooms 10 March along with two partially operating restaurants. By mid-April domestic travel was stirring.

Urban Resort Concepts that runs the swish PuXuan in BEIJING and the PuLi in SHANGHAI has instituted daily room disinfecting. Staff are monitored daily. All guests undergo temperature checks and are required to declare recent travel history. Says CEO Markus Engel, “In the event of a suspected case, the guest will be kept isolated in the room, the entire floor will be cleared and designated medical personnel called.” In addition housekeeping will be frozen and necessities served by staff in protective gear.

The St Regis Beijing - a 23-year-old property that has seen it all, including Sars - has airport-style infrared scanners in place for all guests and visitors. As a safety precaution, St Regis has closed its spa, swimming pool, and fitness centre along with banqueting facilities. All staff have temperature scans twice a day and staff on holiday are required to take regular temperature checks at home too. The Angsana XI'AN Lintong reopened 6 March with temperature checks for all guests in place but with the spa, pool, meeting and banquet facilities closed awaiting official government instruction.

In hard-hit South Korea SEOUL hotels are on high alert with The Westin Chosun Seoul manning thermal imaging cameras at the entrance since late January with careful temperature checks for all guests. Banqueting, spa and pool facilities remain open. By mid-May Seoul was largely functional again but a nightclub Covid outbreak proved a setback. By 9 March JAPAN had a mandatory 14-day quarantine for any visitors from Mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau and Korea. At the same time, visa waivers for Hong Kong and Macau passports were suspended. On 25 March the International Olympic Committee announced the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Covid-19 hotel and airline responses in Asia - Taipei commuters mask up for trains

Metro commuters in Taipei masked up as Covid-19 virus responses kicked in February 2020 and safety precautions became widespread

Grand Hyatt HONG KONG has temperature checks - swift and courteous - at all entrances and regular deep cleaning in the rooms, a habit mirrored at premium city hotels like the Mandarin Oriental, The Murray, and JW Marriott. In the absence of swift or meaningful government action, Hong Kong residents have been queuing for elusive masks, toilet rolls (the target of an armed robbery) and wipes, often only available at usurious rates on the black market. Hotels, however, have moved fast to stock up on hygiene items.

Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific has cut frequencies to North America, with United, Delta and American Airlines stopping flights by early February 2020. At first dragging its feet, the territory eventually closed its high speed train (and ferry links) as well as regular train services to China (as calls for a complete border closure grew), later extending this to all land borders except Shenzhen Bay and the bridge to Zhuhai and Macau.

Starting 15 March 2020 Hong Kong had a mandatory quarantine for travellers from Italy and certain parts of Spain, Germany, France, and Japan (Hokkaido). On 16 March 'home quarantine' was required of all travellers arriving from the UK, Ireland, USA and Egypt. From 19 March, declaring a 'red alert,' Hong Kong imposed a home quarantine for travellers from all foreign countries. And on 25 March sweeping new controls were in place barring all non-residents - including transit passengers - from entry for two weeks, with some exceptions for China, Macau and Taipei subject to quarantine restrictions. A restriction on gatherings of over four persons was imposed on 29 March for a fortnight followed by the closure of 1,200 clubs and bars on 3 April. A partial relaxation commenced on 8 May.

Hyatt has reassuringly tough protocols in place across Asia, including BANGKOK where at the Hyatt Regency and Grand Hyatt Erawan, all guests have temperatures checked at the entrance. In Bangkok as in PHUKET and KOH SAMUI several hotels late February were content with temperature monitoring at the airport though some said they would offer facemasks and hand sanitiser upon request. By 10 March THAILAND had a 14-day quarantine in place for all citizens of Italy, Iran, South Korea and China (including Hong Kong and Macau). These visitors also have to produce a Covid-19 health certificate at the airline check-in along with proof of US$100,000 insurance coverage for Thailand before they will be allowed to embark. It was as clear a DO NOT VISIT sign as any. Up to early April there was already a backlog of stranded tourists in Cambodia (many of them Europeans) who were unable to procure health certificates in order to catch connecting flights home from Bangkok.

By midnight 13 March Thailand had also cancelled visas-on-arrival for 18 countries including India, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Saudi Arabia. Yet, an official flip-flop on this matter continued. And on 18 March the Bangkok metropolitan area saw a 14-day closure of cinemas, spas, clubs and bars, and the boxing stadium. By 26 March Thailand had declared a one-month emergency with powers to implement curfews and censor media.

The Siam Kempinski Hotel Bangkok and Shangri-La Hotel Bangkok (closed from 1-30 April) are two addresses that reassuringly were among the first to insist on temperature checks at the entrance for all guests, visitors and staff, a practice dodged by many luxury properties including those under the usually hyper-cautious American mega-brand Marriott. By 6 March Conrad Bangkok was monitoring temperature at entrances as was the Park Hyatt. And Rosewood Bangkok had started temperature monitoring by 13 March (before closing down 25 March until 30 April). Also checking temperatures was the recently launched Sindhorn Midtown followed later by the Anantara Siam Bangkok Hotel. The much anticipated Sindhorn Kempinski and the Kimpton Maa-Lai, both scheduled to launch in April, have put back opening dates to later in the year and The Four Seasons Hotel Bangkok has started bookings from 1 October 2020..

On 19 March Accor flagship Sofitel Bangkok Sukhumvit finally introduced temperature monitoring for guests though staff were being routinely checked already. So Bangkok had commenced temperature scanning earlier along with Waldorf Astoria Bangkok - and The Okura Prestige Bangkok (now closed from 26 March). InterContinental Bangkok was another major hotel lacking temperature protocols (only at restaurants) until 18 March when temperature scanning commenced. The St Regis Bangkok had temperature checks in place 27 March by which time one of the last holdouts, The Athenee Hotel - a Luxury Collection Hotel Bangkok, also had a nurse at the lobby scanning all comers. The normally busy Novotel Ploenchit was still doing temperature scans only at guest request. Doubtless this will change as the crisis escalates and official guidelines change.

By 26 March several Bangkok hotels had closed due to the coronavirus situation. These included the Marriott Marquis, Marriott Surawongse, Doubletree Sukhumvit, Le Meridien Bangkok, Rosewood and the Okura. The Minor group - which runs 28 hotels in Bangkok including Anantaras and Avanis - announced a major cost-saving shutdown from 25 March, putting it down to the battle against the coronavirus. By 30 March The Peninsula Bangkok was also shut. Shangri-La Bangkok was closed 1-30 April along with St Regis Bangkok, JW Marriott, So Bangkok, Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit, The Sukhothai, and Anantara Riverside Bangkok. By mid-April the list of closures included Grand Hyatt Erawan, Waldorf Astoria Bangkok and, later, Bangkok hotel closures were extended to 1 June.

Remarkably in Bangkok, with rooms still open April/May and resolutely cheerful were the Siam Kempinski (one restaurant open), Athenee Bangkok, Anantara Siam (Continental breakfast only and no restaurants open - in-room dining or at lobby lounge), Conrad Bangkok, Sofitel Bangkok Sukhumvit (one restaurant open), and Hyatt Regency. Ratchaprasong biggie, the InterContinental Bangkok was waiting to clear out the last of its guests late April. Most Bangkok malls were shut down from 22 March. The gourmet and food section in the basement of Siam Paragon remains open.

In CHIANG MAI where the exposure to Chinese visitors is higher, hotels like Shangri-la and Dhara Dhevi have a full raft of measures in place including temperature checks for all. Yet, in PATTAYA, another favoured escape for China groups, both the Hilton and Dusit public relations departments initially declined to offer any information at all. No temperature checks were in place by 9 March. At the beachside royal retreat of HUA HIN, the Centara Grande Beach Resort & Villas had temperature checks in place by 6 March (a policy extended to all major Centara properties). Evason Hua Hin Pranburi announced an "indefinite closure" from 30 April. By mid-April Hyatt Place Patong PHUKET had permanently closed

TAIWAN has a 14-day quarantine in place for visitors from China, Hong Kong, Macau and South Korea and upscale addresses like Regent Taipei have temperature checks for all guests and staff. The Regent Taipei keeps just two exits open (out of five) to regulate inflow of visitors and is acquiring airport-style thermal cameras to reduce stop-and-check inconvenience to guests. The W Taipei monitors guests at check-in while boutique HOTEL QUOTE Taipei and HOTEL PROVERBS Taipei also run temperature scans at entry points. GLORIA RESIDENCE is refreshingly upfront with clear online guidelines for Covid-19 policies.

In SINGAPORE the iconic Fullerton Hotel has instituted temperature scans as has The St Regis Singapore (unlike its Bangkok counterpart). The government had strong measures ins place by 16 March with a 14-day home quarantine for any visitors from (or travellers having passed through) any Asean country. Asean nationals also need to get health clearance from the Singapore Ministry of Health prior to any short-term visit. Disallowed from visits or transit are visitors with a previous 14-day history of travel to China, Iran, South Korea, France, Germany, Italy and Spain. Visitors from Japan, Switzerland and the UK need a two week home quarantine. Emulating its neighbours, by 23 March Singapore was closed to all short-term visitors and transits. From 27 March Singapore had introduced new laws to enforce social distancing (of one metre) in public places and queues - punishable by fine or jail time - clubs and bars were closed, and bans in place for groups of more than 10 persons.

MALAYSIA announced a two-week ban on international travel by Malaysians from 18 March with all business closed during this fortnight and tourists denied entry.

The PHILIPPINES stopped issuing visas on arrival for Chinese visitors late January 2020 (the fast-track policy was launched in 2017 to open the travel spigot). A ban was in place for South Korea, Hong Kong and Macau end February though Taiwan was off the list. By mid-March Manila was in lockdown with all domestic flights and land transport stopped, casinos closed, and many malls shut or with restricted opening hours. And by 17 March all residents of the island of Luzon - where Manila is located - were instructed to stay home with all public transport off the roads.

From 20 March outward flight bans and hotel closures were in place for entire Luzon under an 'enhanced community quarantine'and only designated persons including diplomats, permanent residents and Filipinos are permitted entry. Hotels are closed along with restaurants and facilities and the only guests are suite/villa owners or guests who arrived just before the ban. Other islands and districts have followed suit. In late April, the Luzon lockdown was extended to 15 May following which a modified enhanced community quarantine (MECQ) with several restrictions remained in force in 'high risk' areas like Manila, Laguna province and Cebu. Domestic flights started limited operations by 19 May and Manila's NAIA international airport had restarted very limited inbound commercial flights and charter services from 11 May.

Amorita Resort in Bohol was closed till 26 March in solidarity with the 'enhanced community quarantine' across neighbouring Luzon. The uber-luxe Amanpulo on secluded Pamalican Island did temperature scans for all arriving guests before they entered the hotel lounge. By 15 March Amapnpulo was closed until further notice following official directives. In Manila procedures are watchful if unstressed. At Raffles Makati lingering guests might expect a nurse on duty at all times and a doctor 7am to 12 noon and in early March temperature checks on all arriving guests had commenced but by 16 March the hotel had closed along with all its restaurants, the spa, the Fairmont Pool, and fitness centre. Raffles continues to monitor temperature for all staff and remaining guests three times a day. As per official guidelines, F&B outlets and room bookings were closed at all hotels across the city. For the record, temperature checks were in place earlier in March at hotels like Shangri-La Makati, The Peninsula Manila, and casino hotel Okada Manila.

INDONESIA was quick to ban all travel to and from China to curb any knock-on risk from the almost 2m tourists in 2019. BALI is a major recipient of this traffic. Flights have been reduced sharply and China-originating crews may not be allowed to disembark. A local African Swine Flu outbreak (affecting pigs) appears to be abating but pork has to be government certified with a few luxury hotels opting for imported pork.

While the island is largely in denial claiming business as usual despite dwindling guests, some resorts have reacted sharply with at least one luxury Nusa Dua address turning away booked Chinese guests. A few Bali hotels instituted temperature scans when news of the virus first broke but this is not current practice and queries on ‘temperature checks’ may elicit extreme puzzlement at five-star hotels or a 'no comment' – including at American chains and large conference hotels. There is a glimmer of sanity here though. Since late February the Hyatt Regency Bali has been running temperature checks on all guests, employees and suppliers, a practice in place at the Grand Hyatt Bali too where a nurse and doctor are on standby. By early March 2020 temperature monitoring was in place at some high end resorts like The Apurva Kempinski Bali, The Mulia Bali and the Ayana Resort & Spa Bali. From 20 March (for one month) Indonesia had scrapped visas-on-arrival  and visa-free stays for foreigners and required fresh applications with a health certificate.

At the InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula Resort, VIETNAM, heightened hygiene standards involve increased frequency of cleaning (with entrance temperature checks introduced by March) while at the Banyan Tree Lang Co a short drive from here there are health declarations for guests at check-in but not compulsory temperature screening (unless requested). The same held true 9 March at the Four Seasons Resort The Nam Hai Hoi An where airport checks were deemed sufficient though staff were being monitored.

At the renovated Caravelle SAIGON early March temperature monitoring of 'staff, suppliers, and contractors' was underway (but not for guests as yet) and all front-end staff had protective masks donned. Fusion resorts and hotels - located in Ho Chi Minh City, Danang, Cam Ranh, Hue and Phu Quoc - had instituted frequent sanitisation by early March along with check-in health declarations and temperature checks for some guests based on point of origin and transit.

Some hotels undergoing a 14-day shutdown in early March included the iconic Sofitel Legend Metropole HANOI (from 8 March), Golden Silk Hanoi, La Siesta Trendy Hanoi; the Wyndham Legend Halong; Moonlight Hue; Hidden Charm Ninh Binh, Aravinda Resort Ninh Binh; Mai Chau Ecolodge Hoa Binh; and the Topas Ecolodge and Silk Path Grand Resort & Spa (Sapa). By 10 March Vietnam had suspended its visa exemptions for citizens from South Korea, Spain, Germany, France, Italy, Sweden, United Kingdom, Denmark, Finland, and Norway.

In the sunny MALDIVES things were decidedly more relaxed until the government ended all visas on arrival from 27 March. With flights from China suspended and a ban on Chinese visitors and China transiting passengers since 3 February, many resorts believe the health screening at Male Airport is a sufficient bulwark. The archipelago has also banned cruise ship calls and the entry of any passenger who has visited Iran since 26 February or South Korea since 3 March. Howver, by 9 March two cases had been confirmed in Lhaviyani Atoll (climbing to 11 by late March). The swish Conrad Maldives does not demand temperature scans of its guests and nor does Six Senses Laamu. Uber luxury Cheval Blanc Randheli does not do temperature checks on site (also allowing Male airport to handle first-line screening) but it has stopped day visits by yachts and other casual visitors and there is a certified doctor on the island. This is generally par for the course in the Indian Ocean atolls. Sensibly, at CROSSROADS Maldives, a linked-island twin resort leisure escape in South Male Atoll that includes SAii Lagoon Maldives from Hilton's Curio Collection and a Hard Rock Hotel, temperature screening was in place at entrances by early March.

Farther afield in DUBAI the pace was relaxed for a while. As of 6 March 2020, luxury bolthole Burj Al Arab - a local icon - was satisfied with airport monitoring of Covid-19 and did not have any temperature checks in place at the hotel. By 13 March thermal screening had started appearing at malls and some hotels and both Dubai and Abu Dhabi had moved to shut nightclubs, theme parks and cinemas with restrictions on weddings, concerts and parties. Ramping up further, from 17 March the UAE suspended issuance of visas to all foreigners.

Mandarin Oriental properties in the region now ask guests for health declarations at check-in, offer hand sanitizers in public areas, and have doubled cleaning shifts.

Accor hotels, group policies meanwhile include “flexible cancellations or modifications for any travellers from Greater China to any Accor destination.” Asia-Pacific members of loyalty programme World of Hyatt will also see more flexibility in the form of extensions to their tier status (with the expiration date moved back to 28 February, 2022) as well as benefits and upgrades as the travel downturn bites.

AIRLINES meanwhile are replacing HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) micro filters with greater frequency and introducing rigorous disinfection routines. Garuda, which grounded an aircraft that had carried a Chinese passenger (who later tested positive for Covid-19) from Bali to Shanghai on 28 January, is working on contact tracing – a tediously imperfect art – to track co-passengers and others on the island who may be at risk. The Chinese visitor had travelled to Bali from Wuhan a week earlier. And later in February Korean Air revealed one of its cabin attendants had been stricken by the flu. These will not be isolated events.

Airlines have been hard hit. Citing ‘flight reductions’ Cathay Pacific announced that from 17 February three of its Marco Polo lounges at Hong Kong International Airport were closed indefinitely. It has relaxed regulations covering rebooking and rerouting for certain periods and stopped issuing online boarding passes for certain regions due to fast changing airport entry restrictions. By early March 2020 CX had grounded almost half its fleet with a reported 120 aircraft out of service and three-quarters of March flights dropped.

Beleaguered cash-strapped Hong Kong Airlines has cut staff and dropped inflight service (including duvets and pillows in business class, magazines, and more) on certain flights, effectively replacing its premium promise with budget carrier service. It lists current travel restrictions here. Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA) meanwhile reported a drop of 68% in passenger traffic for February 2019 compared with the same month a year earlier.

Qantas announced mid-March that from end of March till 31 May (or longer) all Qantas and Jetstar international flights stood suspended with over 150 aircraft grounded (including the entire A380, B747 and B787 Dreamliner fleets). Super UAE carrier Emirates announced a suspension of all passenger flights from 25 March.

Singapore Airlines has reassured KrisFlyers that post flight all surfaces and devices (like trays, headphones and entertainment screens) undergo ‘rigorous’ cleaning and the cabin air is replenished every two to three minutes (the standard for most modern aircraft). By 23 March, 90% of its fleet was grounded (including SilkAir and Scoot aircraft).

Philipine Airlines has stopped its flights to China, Hong Kong and Macau till 28 March with detailed updates on its website. By mid-March, Korean Air had suspended almost 80% of its flights with 100 aircraft grounded including its entire A380 fleet. According to the airline monitor OAG while total international flights were down by 10% second week March (compared with the same period in 2019), flights from the busy Hong Kong hub were 'nearly 80% down' while Japan was 15% down. The USA was by comparison just 2% down.

Thai Lion Air suspended all domestic and international flights from 25 March. THAI Airways International had substantially reduced its network, especially to Europe and Scandinavia and continues to do so with all Asia flights (followed by Australia services) suspended from 25 March to 1 June. THAI relaunches some international flights 1 July 2020 with daily services to destinations like London Heathrow, New Delhi, Hanoi, Hong Kong, Taipei and Yangon and a limited thrice weekly service to Beijing and Shanghai. By 23 March Bangkok Airways too had stopped all international flights and Asean services.

India's regional Air Deccan announced on 5 April it was shutting operations 'until further notice.'

CRUISES are in shock decline with a series of quarantines and outbreaks. With an unknown viral agent on the loose there have been calls - including from the US Government - to hold off on cheery feel-good sunset sails especially for the elderly (the main bread and butter business for cruise lines) who are most at risk, more so if combined with an underlying medical condition or chemotherapy treatment that kills white blood cells and lowers immunity. By mid-March Princess Cruises had been suspended for two months and Viking cruise line had shut business till 1 May, 2020. On 19 March Carnival group (that runs Princess Cruises) had offered its empty ships to be used as hospitals in the fight against the novel coronaviros.

Following the quarantine tumult and return to a new normal it is arguable that five-star and luxury properties (long losing business in the online stampede for cheap beds) will return to fashion as ‘safe’ havens with trusted, verifiable protocols. While price is a powerful incentive and bargain hunting has become something of an online pastime, health is now a premium commodity that travellers may be unwilling to gamble with.

It is also possible that in the foreseeable future temperature scans at hotels will become de rigueur in much the manner that airport security checks, however intrusive and irksome, are niggles that passengers now take in their stride.

If anything, the current Covid-19 outbreak has revealed how unprepared governments are for a full-scale pandemic despite painful test runs with SARS and Swine Flu. It has spotlighted how out of touch and insular hotel PR has become and how ill-equipped the travel industry is to report facts or come up with practical solutions, this at a time when good timely information is of the essence.

It is time for governments, national health centres and the hospitality industry to come together to fashion universal protocols to put travellers at ease and dispel rumours. It is in everyone’s interest to do so. This is the way to protect the bottom line.

Send us your Feedback / Letter to the Editor

▲ top

NOTE: Telephone and fax numbers, e-mails, website addresses, rates and other details may change or get dated. Please check with your dealer/agent/service-provider or directly with the parties concerned. SmartTravel Asia accepts no responsibility for any inadvertent inaccuracies in this article. Links to websites are provided for the viewer's convenience. SmartTravel Asia accepts no responsibility for content on linked websites or any viruses or malicious programs that may reside therein. Linked website content is neither vetted nor endorsed by SmartTravelAsia. Please read our Terms & Conditions.

Medical tourism explained

Finding the best doctors and hospitals in Asia, and at the right price