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Travel down and events cancelled as north starts to feel coronavirus pinch

A man wearing a face mask pictured yesterday in the arrivals hall of Terminal 2 at Dublin Airport
Gary McDonald Business Editor

TOURISM trade in the north is already seeing a marked decline in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.

Corporate travel to Ireland has slumped by 30 per cent this month and its anticipated to get worse in March, according to Mukesh Sharma from Hannon Travel in Belfast.

And Queen's University has already postponed an 'Irish night' planned for April in a Belfast city centre venue for more than 100 international academics.

It comes as easyJet said it will be cancelling flights to and from Italy after admitting demand has slowed in other European markets.

The impact of the coronavirus outbreak - and its spread - has also led to many global stock markets plunging to their worst week of trading since the financial crisis of 2008.

Mukesh Sharma told the Irish News: "Our own business to Asia is down by nearly a third, and since San Francisco's mayor declared a state of emergency there, US travel is being impacted too.

"It's a very fluid situation, but when it comes to international travel right now, we have a duty of care to our clients, who in turn have a duty of care to their employees, and some companies just might not want to board a plane to anywhere.

"However, we need perspective, and there remains much hype around this whole outbreak.

"If I had to go to Italy tomorrow, would I? Yes. But I'd take all recommended precautions - just as I'd expect everybody else to do."

Other business leaders like Airporter's Jennifer McKeever and Seamus Leheny of the Freight Transport Association have already voiced their concerns about the potential impact in areas like tourism and the movement of goods.

China, the world's second biggest economy right now, remains a relatively small market for Northern Ireland, worth around £200 million a year.

But that figure has been growing, and in recent years two companies in Northern Ireland have been acquired by major Chinese corporations (the Aviation Industry Corporation of China acquired Portadown-based Thompson Aero Seating, which counts Qantas, American Airlines and Aer Lingus among its customers, while China-based global trailer manufacturer CIMC Vehicles bought over Retlan Manufacturing in Toomebridge).

Authorities in the UK are keen to put things in perspective, because around 4 per cent of the global population will get flu this year (and many will die as a result), while the coronavirus is still minute by comparison (albeit there is no available vaccine at this stage).

But businesses, as evidenced by the whole Brexit scenario, require certainty and clarity.

And in a worst-case scenario, where coronavirus hits the UK's economy in meaningful way, significantly impacting high street shopping, tourism and the leisure and services sectors, the onus will then be on the Chancellor or Prime Minister to indicate precisely what support the government is prepared to offer to avoid an economic Armageddon.

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