3 March 2020

Coronavirus - should I travel to Italy?

Anything anyone can write about coronavirus and its impact on travel may be out-of-date and redundant within 24 hours, but for what it's worth here are my thoughts, and my answers to questions I've been asked. I've been a resident of Italy, a traveller to Italy and make a living from tourism in Italy so see the problems from several angles. I'm not an expert so these are just my personal reflections.

Would you travel to Italy now?

It depends.

Museums and attractions which were closed are re-opening, or desperate to do so, albeit with restrictions. After initial national panic over the virus spread, the tourist industry in Italy realised the terrible threat it is under and is keen to maintain normality. Italians who depend upon foreign tourism for their living are naturally keen to point out that it is (mostly) business as normal in their particular areas. Realistically, though, travellers from overseas have a lot more complex issues.

Governments are issuing warnings and flights are being cut, so some visitors won't have a choice but to cancel. There are realistic risks, quite apart from catching the virus yourself - which may be the least of some travellers' concerns. Travel plans will be hostage to fortune, and travel insurers may not be much help in all situations. Do I risk being quarantined away from home, in a foreign town, at an airport or in a chaotic hotel situation? Am I happy to entrust myself to the local healthcare system? By the time I return, might I be quarantined or expected to self-isolate for two weeks or more? What impact would this have on my life and family? Is it irresponsible to risk transporting contagion to a home country where it may not yet be rife? What if I am in a vulnerable category myself, or my friends and family are? Will I be vilified as a super-spreader in a Daily Mail hate campaign? How essential is my travel anyway? These are the kinds of questions which a traveller might be asking.

I travelled from Italy well before the dates currently of concern, and before there was any particular reason to worry - although no-one seems sure yet when the virus actually started circulating under the radar. Once in England, perfectly well, I spent time with elderly vulnerable relatives and acquaintances, with friends, with children, travelled by public transport, ate out, went to the theatre. When cases in Italy hit the news, and I developed a mildly sore throat, it was a sobering moment. I wasn't officially at risk and was told it was highly unlikely I had coronavirus. I knew this, but thinking back over the contacts I'd had in the preceding week made me reflect on what might have happened and how I'd have felt about it, especially if I had taken a known risk, however slight.

Spritz on the beach in winter, Venice
So I take travellers' concerns seriously. If I had a trip to Italy booked in the next few weeks, I would still consider going. It would depend on my reasons for travelling, my situation and plans for the time after my return, and perhaps my destination. I'd keep up-to-date with the news, my airline, my government's advice and my travel insurers. If I were to go I'd be prepared for possible disruption in Italy, or at home on my return. I'd be prepared to self-isolate if advisable at that point. I know of several people whose employers have insisted they stay away from work after returning from northern Italy - not from lockdown zones, but from elsewhere in those regions. I'd be very careful of hygiene - as a germaphobe this is second nature to me anyway - and follow any local rules and restrictions, such as keeping a distance from other people.

Would you book travel to Italy for later this year?


At the moment no-one knows what the situation will be anywhere in the world in a few months time. Civilisation as we know it may have broken down. Everything might be back (almost) to normal. International travel might be severely restricted. Or the spread of the virus may be so wide that limitations on movement become pointless. The most cautious option is to see what happens and book summer travel later, at short notice - there will probably still be plenty of availability, and you can do some research, book time off work and be ready with ideas and provisional plans to keep your spirits up in the meantime. Or, like me, you could book now and keep your fingers crossed. The fewer people who book, the more likely flights are to be reduced, and the more trouble the Italian tourist industry will be in. I'd suggest checking your travel insurance - if you don't have any, take it out before you book - and your refund options if you decide to go ahead. I'll be doing this and having a look at flight prices from May/June onwards (I only rule April out as I'm busy elsewhere). I'll probably book flights soon, and if I book accommodation, make sure it is on a fully-refundable basis. And of course, be prepared for change.

Asolo in the Veneto in May

No travel is risk-free

There are always risks to travel, although it may generally be only cautious people and germaphobes who think much about them. Italy is vulnerable to earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, landslides, flooding, infrastructure collapse as well as more mundane risks such as road traffic accidents. People have died from all of these in recent years. I've experienced earthquakes and, more seriously for me, caught infections while travelling, including a nasty three-week bug probably contracted on a journey between Sicily and London last year. You can't avoid all risks, just be aware of them, consider what degree of risk you're prepared to take, take precautions to minimise risk or mitigate outcomes, and be ready to adjust to changing scenarios. Make choices you are comfortable with. This applies with coronavirus as well as all the other hazards of travel.

If you don't want to travel or make definite plans now, why not start daydreaming about your next destination? Or you could get a fix of Italy through reading books set in Italy or watch a good Italian film - enjoy Italy vicariously until you can next get there.

Me? I'm considering a southern trip, an island holiday, and of course returning to Venice. And maybe I'll get through some of my Italy reading pile in the meantime.

Volcano tourism: Approaching the active volcano Stromboli

The island of Giglio, Tuscany, last September

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