Travel companies face the prospect of cancellations, refunds and re-arranging itineraries after a warning was issued against all but essential travel to mainland China.

Operators, airlines and cruise lines will all have to adhere to the latest Foreign Office advice, issued last night as more deaths and cases of coronavirus were confirmed.

British Airways has suspended all flights to and from mainland China with “immediate effect” following the change in advice.

“We apologise to customers for the inconvenience, but the safety of our customers and crew is always our priority,” the airline said.

“Customers due to travel to or from China in the coming days can find more information on”

The carrier added: “If you are flying between now and 23 February 2020 you can rebook on to another flight operated by British Airways.”

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BA said the situation “will remain under review” and regular updates will be provided.

The FCO updated its advice again on Wednesday stating: “Some airlines, including British Airways, have suspended flights to and from mainland China.

“Other commercial airlines are still operating, but it may become harder over the coming weeks for those who wish to leave China to do so.”

Two-hundred British citizens are being flown back to the UK from Wuhan on Thursday will be put in quarantine for two weeks.

The death toll has risen to at least 132 in China with the number of cases of the virus in the country up to 6,000.

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Virgin Atlantic flights to Shanghai continue to operate as scheduled.

However, the airline has a policy in place should customers wish to rebook, or opt to cancel for a refund.

Other airlines to cancel flights include United Airlines which has pulled 24 US flights to Beijing, Hong Kong and Shanghai from February 1-8 following a drop in demand.

Air Canada has reduced its number of flights and Lion Air said it would be suspending dozens of flights on routes to 15 Chinese cities from Saturday.

Russia’s Ural Airlines has cancelled some services to European cities popular with Chinese tourists, including Paris and Rome, because of the outbreak.

Cathay Pacific and subsidiary Cathay Dragon are cutting the number of flights between Hong Kong and mainland China by at least 50% from January 30 until the end of March. The two airlines are waiving re-booking, re-routing and refund charges for tickets on the services issued before January 28.

China Airlines is reportedly encouraging passengers to bring their own drinks bottles, and Singapore Airlines is allowing cabin crew to wear masks on China flights.

‘Expect advice to change’

However, at least one firm voiced optimism that the travel clampdown – which excludes Hong Kong and Macao – may be temporary.

A spokesman for China specialist Wendy Wu Tours said: “We don’t have any clients in China now as we always avoid sending clients during Chinese New Year.

“The current travel advice is for travel to China now. It’s changing daily and we fully expect this to change again, i.e. lifting the mainland China travel advice, in the next few days.”

The operator said it would be contacting customers due to travel in February but travel to China beyond February is currently planned to operate as normal.

It also said Dr Zhong Nanshan, the medical expert behind the elimination of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) in 2003 and the leading doctor on the current coronavirus outbreak, has stated that the virus should reach a peak in a week to ten days and will then lessen.

A Kuoni spokesperson said: “Whilst we don’t have customers due to travel with British Airways to or from China (from now until January 31), it’s a developing situation so we will continue to review FCO advice and all our airline partners’ policies and amend travel plans accordingly to ensure we respect steps taken to contain the spread of the virus and protect the health and safety of our customers.

“As it is low season, we don’t have any customers on tours in China at the moment but we are reviewing all bookings for China which are due to depart from the UK over the next few months.

“Our next customers are due to depart at the end of February and our next group tour is scheduled for early March, so we’ll be reviewing the situation on an daily basis so we can discuss travel arrangements with each customer on an individual basis.”

‘There will be a dip in bookings’

Abercrombie & Kent is offering people due to travel immediately to China the option to postpone, cancel or rebook to an alternative destination free of charge.

UK managing director Kerry Golds said: “For guests departing in the coming months we will discuss options with them as the situation evolves.

“We’ve had some calls from clients who are concerned and unsure. We are monitoring the situation closely alongside our China and Hong Kong offices.

“Clients are cautious and we are working with them on other options. Naturally, in a situation like this, there will be a dip in bookings.”

She added: “Based on past experiences with SARs in 2003, it is encouraging that the Chinese government has taken unprecedented steps to face the outbreak and deal with it in a transparent manner.

“Given this is the low travel season for inbound travel to China we are hopeful that the issue can be can resolved before the spring travel season begins.”

Cruise lines with departures from China or itineraries involving calls in the country are either cancelling or amending their schedules.

All holidays booked with On The Go Tours for travel to China until March 25 have been cancelled with refunds offered.

A decision on trips due to depart between March 26 and April 25 will be made on February 17, based on government advice at that time.

“As the situation is fluid plans for those travelling after 25 April and the remainder of 2020 have yet to be put in place,” the operator said.

“A further update for those travelling after 25 April 2020 will be given on the 17th February 2020.”

Cruise trade body Clia said developments related to the coronavirus were being monitored closely.

“As with any trip, whether by land, air or sea, travellers should check with public health authorities to be informed regarding health matters at the destinations they will visit, and exercise appropriate precautions,” the organisation said.

“Clia cruise lines maintain close contact with health professionals and regulators around the world, and are one of the most well-equipped and experienced industries when it comes to managing and monitoring health conditions.

“Additionally, cruise lines take precautions to conduct screening of passengers and crew, when appropriate, for illness prior to boarding.

“All ships implement outbreak prevention and response measures and are fitted with medical facilities and onboard medical personnel 24/7 to provide initial care in the event of illness and prevent further transmission.

Royal Caribbean International has cancelled three sailings on Spectrum of the Seas up until February 8, which is currently homeported in Shanghai.

Cunard has cancelled Queen Mary 2’s call to Hong Kong on February 18-19 and replaced it with Singapore.

A spokesperson said: “We are looking at the impact of travel restrictions due to coronavirus and our imminent ports of call in China and Hong Kong for Queen Mary 2 and Queen Elizabeth.

“We will continue to monitor the situation for future calls to Shanghai and Hong Kong and amend itineraries as necessary.”

Inbound tourism

A slump in Chinese tourists visiting Europe following a ban on outbound package trips is likely to cost the UK £35 million in lost revenue.

“These are last minute cancellations – some within 24 hours – releasing space when there is little alternative demand,” Tom Jenkins, chief executive of European tourism association Etoa warned.

“They are concentrated, like much low season business, in a few areas. So the commercial pain experienced is considerable.

“It is probable that these clients are deferring their visit. There is no indication that they are permanently erasing their intentions to come here.

“We should expect a subsequent surge in bookings when the scare is over. The impact of SARS was substantial in 2002-03, but the recovery was robust within five months.”