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Birding tours in China, Israel canceled, postponed due to coronavirus travel constraints

coronavirus
Birdwatchers in Sde Boker, in the Negev Desert of southern Israel. Photo by Agami Photo Agency/Shutterstock

Travel restrictions around the globe due to the coronavirus pandemic have forced birding-tour companies to cancel or postpone at least 15 birding tours in China beginning in February and continuing through early June.

Companies that have canceled China tours include Birdtour Asia, China Bird Tour, WINGS Birding Tours, and Victor Emanuel Nature Tours. Rockjumper Worldwide Birding Adventures says it has postponed its current China and Japan tours until 2021.

Tang Jun, the owner and manager of China Bird Tour, says he may decide to cancel more tours this spring; he’s waiting until April to decide. Similarly, James Eaton of Birdtour Asia says he will decide soon on the status of four planned China tours this spring and summer.

“Our Taiwan, Japan in winter, Thailand, and Vietnam tours all went ahead though without issue as at that stage the virus was mostly confined to China,” says Keith Valentine, Rockjumper’s managing director. “I doubt these trips would go ahead given developments this week.”

Rockjumper also issued a policy for its customers in light of the coronavirus that says they may rebook tours for later in 2020 or in 2021. 

Indeed, the spread of the virus around the world in recent weeks — and the associated travel restrictions — raises the possibility that more birding trips or events may be canceled or postponed.

Victor Emanuel, the founder of Victor Emanuel Nature Tours, issued this statement about the virus and related travel issues:

“As worries continue to grow regarding illness related to Coronavirus (COVID-19), we know that you are or may become concerned for your well-being with regard to travel. I assure you that we are as concerned as anyone and that we are monitoring the situation closely. The news on the world scene is mixed, with new cases appearing in countries previously unaffected, while the rate of transmission in mainland China, where the virus originated, has declined. Overall, it is still too early to tell what the ultimate impact of COVID-19 will be.

“Given the relatively low incidence of confirmed cases outside of mainland China (and more recently South Korea), we feel confident in moving forward with the operation of our tours. At this time, we do not plan to cancel any of our upcoming tours, with the exception of our Classic China tour, which we canceled this week.

“I emphasize that we are paying close attention to the situation and will indeed cancel a tour if we decide it is prudent to do so, i.e. in light of changing circumstances. The health and safety of our travelers is our top priority.”

Israel quarantine affects birders

On March 9, Israel’s government announced that anyone flying into the country beginning Thursday, March 12, will have to go into quarantine for two weeks. This has forced birders who were planning to travel to Israel for the Champions of the Flyway birding conservation race on March 31 to cancel their plans. The race will still go on for the 25 or so teams of Israeli birders, and organizers are working on local races that their international participants can take part in in their home countries.

The quarantine rules will also squash other birding trips in Israel planned for this month — one of the best times of year to bird the nation.

Jonathan Meyrav, tourism manager for the Israel Ornithological Center, says in a video posted to Facebook that in addition to the Champions race, other birding plans have been set aside: “Eilat festival canceled, plus a large number of birding tours that we had lined up from international clients. This is a big blow to us, and a significant blow to conservation. But I guess this is what we have to do to deal with this new bug, this COVID-19.”  

Monitoring the situation

None of the eight birding-tour companies that I connected with in the last week or so said they’re canceling or altering other tours in the months ahead, at least not yet.

Matt Brooks, managing director of WINGS Birding Tours says: “Our tours that are currently underway (or just finishing) haven’t really been affected by travel restrictions, thankfully, beyond some participants’ travel plans to Asia being impacted (needing to re-route to avoid connections in China, Hong Kong, South Korea, etc. per travel restrictions/flight suspensions.)

“We’re monitoring upcoming tours in a number of destinations. I think in the coming days we may see a few participant cancelations from tours running in March, April, or May, and possibly on a wider range of destinations than we’ve seen so far as the situation continues to evolve. It’s possible we’ll see a slow-down in new bookings for this same time period as well, as some clients postpone birding travel plans.”

Officials with several tour companies, including Justin Peter, director of Worldwide Quest Nature Tours, emphasized the need for travel insurance.

“Speaking generally, we always suggest that travelers purchase adequate travel insurance at booking time,” he says. “This will protect them in case the government of the USA or Canada later issues a ‘Do not travel’ or ‘Avoid non-essential travel’ notice on the destination country, since such a notice can be an insurable risk (and it’s very important that travelers do their due diligence on this). I would say that in general, our travelers are savvy, and while they are naturally concerned, most are wont to carefully research a destination and their insurance before making (or changing) their plans. Insurance will not cover a cancelation simply due to personal preferences if the cancelation if not based on an actual, objective and reasonable risk.”

Cam Gillies, president of Eagle-Eye Tours, says none of his company’s tours have been affected so far, but that he and his team are “monitoring the situation very closely, watching both the emergence of cases and any new travel restrictions. We are recommending that new customers take a close look at their insurance options to build in some potential protection against any potential losses on flights etc. I think these are early days yet and exactly how this will affect our operations very much remains to be seen.”

Cancelations not made lightly

Peg Abbott, owner of the tour companies Caligo Ventures and Naturalist Journeys, says the novel coronavirus is the latest challenge for organizations that operate ecotourism trips. For several decades, she says, her “travel planners have navigated the risks of malaria, dengue, schistosomiasis, cholera, venomous reptiles, curving mountain and other crazy driving routes, weather events, landslides, political unrest.”

And she adds: “Perhaps there might be some positive steps taken here. All airlines and airports could help us all out by ramping up hygiene standards and getting an enthusiastic response to that from travelers. Many of our travelers are retired; that’s when people have the time and the funds to travel for birding. This also means they’re at an age group of more risk for any influenza strain or viruses that can spread in crowded airports.

“We know many of our clients personally, and for all involved of course we have concerns. We are also firmly grounded in our mission, which is to help people get to see the amazing and abundant biodiversity on this planet. We take that task seriously and will endeavor to keep our trips running with assurance to clients that we can help them through any travel delays.

“We know that many of our travelers plan for months, study ahead to learn their birds, try to understand the culture, and make plans with everything from dog sitters to house-sitters to family that rely on them for childcare. It is never a quick decision on either side to cancel a trip, and we will do so only with informed, careful information and consultation.”

Read more

World Health Organization Coronavirus Updates

Johns Hopkins University Interactive Case Map

Should spring birding festivals be canceled due to coronavirus?

Pete Dunne toasts Victor Emanuel Nature Tours and the Ecotourist Movement

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Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall is the editor of BirdWatching magazine and BirdWatchingDaily.com. He joined the staff of BirdWatching (formerly Birder’s World) in 2000 and has worn many hats over the years: reporter, story wrangler, photo editor, managing editor, and now editor. Originally from Omaha, he lives with his wife and two daughters in Milwaukee and holds a Bachelor’s in journalism from Marquette University. You can reach Matt at (617) 706-9098 and [email protected].

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