January 27, 2020 / 4:29 PM / 2 months ago

UPDATE 1-European travel firms cancel trips to China as death toll rises

* Travel industry on high alert

* Death toll hits 81

* China's top tourist attractions closed due to virus

* Airline stocks among biggest losers in Europe (Adding details, stock moves)

By Anneli Palmen, Ilona Wissenbach and Benoit Van Overstraeten

FRANKFURT/PARIS, Jan 27 (Reuters) - Some tour operators in Europe are cancelling trips to China and offering customers refunds for bookings as concerns grow about the spread of the new flu-like virus, triggering a rout in major travel and airline stocks.

Steps to limit travel to China came after the death toll rose to 81, with more than 2,740 people infected by the virus.

In Germany, Studiosus, a specialist online travel agent which sells holidays of up to 20 days to China for about 3,665 euros ($4,065) has cancelled trips until the middle of April, it said on its website.

The move affected several hundred travellers, according to a spokeswoman for the company which last year had 2,300 customers travelling to China. The company's next tour would have started on March 15.

Customers with a reservation leaving before May 31 can rebook or cancel their visit, it said.

Also in Germany, travel company DER Touristik will refund or change bookings for trips to China up to the end of March, it said in an email. At the moment, it has about 100 customers in China.

The body representing France's tour operators, SETO, has recommended members suspend tours to China until at least Feb. 21 and offer customers the option of changing their booking.

SHARES SLIDE

Stocks in Asia and Europe fell sharply on Monday, with airlines and airport operators, hotel operators and luxury goods companies hit the hardest as investors worried about the impact of the virus on the global economy.

Shares in Air France KLM, BA-owner IAG and cruise operator Carnival were down between 5.3% and 6%, among the biggest losers on the pan-European STOXX 600 index .

British independent travel agent Trailfinders has suspended bookings for China until the end of April, a spokeswoman said. Travellers with flights to China and Hong Kong can switch destinations without a fee, but they may not cancel free of charge, she said.

The rate of cancellations would likely rise if the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the epidemic to be a global emergency, which would require countries to step up the international response to the outbreak.

Last week, the body said it stopped short of that, describing it as "an emergency in China".

Earlier, Russian tour operators stopped selling package holidays to China.

Such measures by foreign tour operators are likely to deepen concerns about the potential long-term damage to the global tourism and airline industries. More than 140 million foreign tourists visited the country last year, according to industry estimates.

Many of China's top tourist attractions including Shanghai Disney and the Forbidden City in Beijing are closed until further notice to try to contain the spread.

During the height of the SARS in April 2003, air passenger demand in Asia plunged 45%. ($1 = 0.9014 euros)

Additional reporting by Yadarisa Shabong; Writing by Josephine Mason Editing by Keith Weir

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