Published on Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Ministers 'to discuss support for businesses hit by coronavirus'


Government ministers are looking at how to alleviate the cash-flow crisis for UK tourism business that are dependent on the Chinese market, which has been damaged by the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.

Speaking at the UKinbound annual conference in Bristol, VistiBritain director of strategy and communications Patricia Yates said the issue was being discussed at two government meetings this week.

She said ministers were looking at how to assist businesses reliant on China, a market which grew 20% last year. "There is a real dialogue going on there," she said.

Health secretary Matt Hancock chaired an emergency COBRA meeting of senior ministers on Wednesday afternoon to discuss the UK's reaction to coronavirus, which has infected more than 28,000 so far, most of them in China, the vast majority in the epicentre, Wuhan. Almost 600 victims have died.

The UK isn't yet refusing entry to visitors from China, but this remains a possibility. Hancock said that decision was 'under review' adding: "We will do everything to protect the public."

Meanwhile, Yates admitted VisitBritain has paused marketing activity in China following the coronavirus outbreak. When asked why by China Travel Outbound MD Helena Beard, who pointed out that other countries such as New Zealand had launched 'fantastic' campaigns that she said will  'win the hearts and minds of Chinese people', Yates said: "We have to show a return on investment every year and we would have not got that this year from China."

However, she said VistiBritain had written a 'warm and emotional' letter to the Chinese travel trade to make clear its support, and it is continuing social media activities in the country and getting daily updates on the latest situation.

Taking part in a panel discussion at the UKinbound conference, Fiona Pollard, who sits on the Visit England tourism advisory board, urged businesses to be supportive of Chinese travellers and allow free cancellations during the current crisis.

Pollard, who is also chair of The Roman Baths Foundation, one of the first UK tourism businesses to actively court the Chinese market by translating its literature into Chinese and now attracts 120,000 Chinese tourists a year, said: "I think if we can act positively, not apply cancellation charges, and be open to pushing those cancellations forward we will get payback when the Chinese are looking to travel again. I would counsel businesses to be supportive."

Looking on the positive side, Pollard said this was the low-season for Chinese travel to the UK, accounting for only 15% of annual visits, adding that there was a hope that the crisis would have abated by the peak season.

She pointed out that UK tourism figures recovered within three months of the SARS epidemic in 2003, but that only infected around 8,000 people whereas there have already been more than three times more people infected with the coronavirus.

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