Travelers returning to Estonia from Northern Italy have brought the novel coronavirus with them on several occasions, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is recommending avoiding travel to the region during the current outbreak. While several travel agencies confirmed Thursday that their planned trips would go ahead as planned, by Friday they were no longer as optimistic, and Novatours announced Friday afternoon that they were canceling their next three scheduled trips to the region.
On Friday morning, Novatours was still offering trips to Northern Italy at an over 50 percent discount on their homepage. A week-long ski trip scheduled to begin Saturday, for example, was being offered for €325 insead of the usual €775, and a slew of discounts were being offered for a trip to begin March 14.
The travel agency announced on Friday afternoon, however, that it was canceling its March 7, 14 and 21 trips to Bergamo as the number of cases of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Estonia was increasing and a significant number of those diagnosed with the disease had just returned from the Italian airport into and out of which Novatours flies.
"We will bring home clients currently on vacation in the Italian Alps with a regular scheduled flight on March 7," added Novatours marketing and PR director Olev Riisberg.
Novatours who have travel packages or flights booked to Italy for those three days can choose to switch their package or plane ticket for another offered by Novatours, and the company is also offering customers refunds of their deposits. Customers interested in doing so should contact their travel agent.
According to Riisberg, the company does not know of any cases of coronavirus thus far connected to any of its chartered flights from Bergamo.
All flights to Novatours' other destinations are operating according to schedule.
March 14 and 21 departures to Livigno in the Italian Alps have also been marked with "super discounts" on the homepage of travel agency Germalo reisid. Germalo director Marianne Kaldas told ERR that they intend to make changes, but could not comment any further for the time being.
"Decisions will be made soon," she added. "We are aware and we are handling it, but unfortunately I can't say anything more at the moment."
Reisiekspert also offers travel to Northern Italy via Saturday flights from Estonia, but a call to a general contact number did not result in information regarding whether or not this Saturday's flight would be taking place as scheduled.
No flights canceled in Tallinn
Tallinn Airport board member Einari Bambus said that flights arrive in Tallinn from Northern Italy three times a week via Ryanair, which fly Milan-Bergamo-Tallinn on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Smartlynx also flies chartered flights from Bergamo to Estonia once a week for ski trips booked via travel agencies.
"Regarding countries surrounding us, flights have already been canceled or their frequencies reduced," Bambus said. "Everything in Tallinn is operating according to schedule, and nothing has been canceled or reduced, but we cannot rule out that such measures may come from Ryanair, which has already reduced the frequencies of medium-length and shorter routes. I don't have the latest data; perhaps some category has already been temporarily suspended already, but not in Tallinn."
Not all travelers will be subject to review by thermal imaging cameras installed at the airport, however. According to Bambus, the airport has worked out the logistics in cooperation with officials from the Health Board and the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA), and the priority is checking people who have arrived from at-risk regions.
The airport representative stressed that operations at Tallinn Airport are going smoothly right now, information and disinfectants are available at the airport, people can speak to Health Insurance officials on site if they would like.
"Everything is very calm at the terminal," he added. "You practically don't even see anyone with face masks."
AirBaltic canceling 90 flights
Beginning March 23, airBaltic will be reducing its flight volumes 4 percent due to the spread of the coronavirus, BNS announced. The airline is also canceling 90 flights between Riga and Milano. These changes will affect the period from March 23 through April 5.
"As we can see that trips that were supposed to take place in the near future have tended to be postponed, we are taking proactive steps to reduce our costs and preserve the company's general high efficacy parameters," said airBaltic Senior Vice President (SVP) Wolfgang Reuss.
Travelers who have booked flights on routes affected by special measures will receive individual information and offers for travel alternatives from airBaltic.
Travelers whose trips to Milan are affected by the reduction in flights on the Riga-Milano route and whose flight was to take place prior to May 31 will be given the opportunity to change the date of their travel or choose an alternative destination close to Milan from among Zurich, Geneva, Munich or Vienna.
AirBaltic flights to Milan and Verona will take place as scheduled through March 23.
Virus fears affecting Tallink passenger numbers
Tallink Grupp board member Piret Mürk-Dubout said that it is mostly Chinese tourists who have canceled their trips, both individual travelers and in groups. Some 20,000 such trips have been canceled since the beginning of the year.
"Naturally that isn't a very large number compared to our total passenger numbers, rather a small portion thereof, but the entire situation, media reports and the spread of the virus will certainly also impact the behavior of our more local travelers," she said.
According to Mürk-Dubout, right now, people are either booking their travel last minute or are postponing their trips. Overall, travel by Estonian, Latvian, Finnish and Swedish passengers has been reduced by some 20 percent. It is difficult to predict further developments, however, such as how companies will plan business trips. The company does not currently plan on introducing any specials enticing people to travel.
According to the company representative, Tallink is prepared to react quickly if needed, and their ships are being cleaned more often than usual. She recommends travelers with concerns apply for travel cancellation coverage when booking their trip, which would allow them to cancel their trip at short notice and receive a refund on their tickets.
The Health Board announced on Friday that five Tallinn residents to arrive in Estonia by air via a flight from Bergamo to Riga had been diagnosed with the coronavirus disease, all of whom are being treated at home. A total of ten cases of the disease have been diagnosed in Estonia thus far, all of which have come from abroad.
Editor: Aili Vahtla