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Governments are advising citizens against travel to China during the current 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) outbreak and with good reason. But if you want to travel to China or are already in China, it is worth considering how safe are various areas of China, how to prevent infection, and when will China be safer to travel (coronavirus free).
The 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV, a.k.a. the Wuhan coronavirus) is a new (“novel”) virus similar to the SARS and MERS coronaviruses, which attaches to the lungs and causes difficulty breathing (pneumonia) in severe cases and death in 723/34,622 cases (2% mortality) as of 2020-02-08 at 11:28.
The virus originated from an animal at a meat market in Wuhan in Hubei Province, and crossed over to the human population in late 2019. Hubei has been the area most severely affected by the outbreak (699 deaths, 97% of the total, and 72% of cases on Feb. 8).
It has spread through China and has seen a few cases overseas too, disrupting lives, the economy, and domestic and international travel as a result.
China is currently on an extended Chinese New Year holiday, imposed by the government to counter the spread of the virus, up until February 9.
Symptoms of 2019-nCoV are a runny nose, headache, cough, sore throat, fever, and feeling unwell in general, which can progress to difficulty breathing and fatal pneumonia. Although there is no known vaccine, most sufferers have recovered on their own or with care to help relieve symptoms and support to vital organ functions in more severe cases.
Not in February 2020: Foreign governments’ advice against non-essential travel to China and all travel to Hubei is expected to continue through this month. (Besides, most tourist attractions are closed until at least the end of February.)
Due to the coronavirus outbreak, most governments strongly advise against travel to China at present, and some foreign citizens have been evacuated from the Wuhan area.
On January 24, the U.S. State Department labeled Hubei with a Level 4 travel advisory (“do not travel”: the highest level), while the rest of China is at a level 3 (avoid nonessential travel). The Congo was at a Level 3 during their 2018 Ebola outbreak, so the new coronavirus is being treated very seriously.
Plan to travel in March with caution: Expectations are that the coronavirus situation will be under control next month, but keep an eye on your country's travel advice as things may change quickly. With the exception of Wuhan/Hubei, the rest of China is expected to return to normal in March, unless the virus prevails over containment measures, which is currently seen as unlikely.
Probably April will be mostly safe: It is expected that new cases of 2019-nCoV will be limited to isolated pockets by April 2020. Hubei travel may still be restricted.
The SARS outbreak in 2003 took about 2 months from when new cases started rising rapidly to when they subsided to low numbers. On February 4, 25 days from when the first nCoV cases were reported, it seems that daily new cases reached their peak. Now (Feb. 7), it seems they are decreasing.
For SARS, new cases were reported until about 70 days after the peak. For the new coronavirus outbreak (its contagiousness seems similar to SARS’, though 2019-nCoV has a longer incubation period), this would put a predicted end of the outbreak at around mid-May.
Every province/region in China has had at least one case of the 2019 coronavirus, but outlying and remote areas such as Kashgar (no cases) in remote Xinjiang are relatively unaffected. Tibet's beautiful natural scenery and many Silk Road sights can be enjoyed with a low risk of contracting the virus.
Chinese areas with a low coronavirus risk (fewer than 50 cases [Feb. 8]) are the remote north/west: Tibet, Xinjiang, Qinghai, and Inner Mongolia; as well as Chinese regions with “international” borders in the southeast: Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan. You may travel these areas with caution.
The coronavirus should not affect Tibet travel plans. There has only been one case registered in Tibet, making it the safest region in China to travel to (for risk of infection). The best time to travel to Tibet is between May and October, when the weather and oxygen levels are best. Moreover, Tibet is currently closed to foreigners, and probably through March, due firstly to the politically sensitive Losar period. Find out more on Planning a Tibet Tour in 2020 — Suggestions and Ideas.
See an up-to-date map of the virus spread on Wuhan Maps.
It is expected that all but the worst affected areas of China will see current cases of the coronavirus fall to low-risk levels by the end of February. The big test to this prediction is how containment measures will hold up during the post-Chinese-New-Year migration of workers returning to the cities.
Probably, most of China could be traveled with caution in March, with the exception of Hubei Province, and possibly Guangdong, Zhejiang, Henan, Hunan, Anhui, and Jiangxi (with over 500 cases currently [Feb. 8]).
With the exception of Hubei Province, where there may be a residual occurrence of new 2019-nCoV cases, the majority of China should have been declared coronavirus-free in April (2 weeks without a new case).
1. While the coronavirus outbreak risk is high, a travel-from-China quarantine period of up to two weeks is likely as an international precaution, which could be a big inconvenience. This consideration alone may affect your travel plans.
2. If you do travel in China in the coming weeks, the main advice is to avoid the worst affected areas.
3. Avoid contact with people (those infected may be contagious without showing symptoms), and maintain a distance of at least 1 meter. Avoid crowded places and transport.
4. Hygiene: Do not touch your nose/mouth/eyes etc. with unwashed hands. Wash your hands for 20+ seconds with soap or a 60–75% alcohol solution (hand sanitizer), especially after contact with potential carriers (including animals) or surfaces they or their breath could have touched.
5. Carefully-chosen face masks reduce infection risk. Bring enough masks as they are currently unavailable in China, supplies having been diverted to hospitals. Masks are a breeding ground for bacteria, so regular changing of masks is advised.
Regular food-hygiene/surgical nose-and-mouth masks or those to keep your nose warm will not stop viruses. What they do is stop coughing and breathing from spreading the virus as readily and remind wearers not to touch their face with unwashed hands.
As the virus usually enters a body primarily through the nose/mouth (though possibly through the eyes, ears, etc.), an anti-particle respirator/mask (+ goggles) of N95 or higher specification will help prevention.
We have been in the China travel industry for over 20 years and we have lots of experience with handling situations such as viral outbreaks and natural disasters. It is important to us that you feel comfortable and safe during your visit and we will respect any requests or decisions you make regarding your travels.
Any customer that has booked a trip with us can cancel or reschedule it for free during the time of the coronavirus outbreak. If you would like to change your trip, we also offer tours to many destinations around the world including in Southeast Asia, India, and the Middle East. See Asia Highlights.