UD repatriates as Corona costs rise

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Norway’s foreign ministry (Utenriksdepartementet, UD) has decided to help bring Norwegians home from isolated areas of China, cooperating with other European countries in an effort to hinder the spread of the potentially fatal Corona virus. The virus is already taking a financial toll on tourism, the Oslo Stock Exchange and, not least, Norway’s already-weak currency, the krone.

Norway’s foreign ministry in Oslo confirmed Thursday that it’s begun helping Norwegian citizens who want or need to leave China. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

The value of the krone fell further on Thursday, with a US dollar costing nearly NOK 9.23 at mid-afternoon. That comes after the Oslo Stock Exchange fell another 2 percent on Wednesday and was down Thursday as well, in line with markets worldwide.

Investors fear recent falls in the price of Norway’s biggest export product, oil, while Norwegian shipping and cruise companies already face large paper losses. Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported Thursday that Oslo-based Awilhelmsen, for example, faces such a loss of around NOK 3.5 billion (USD 358 million) because of how the Corona virus has hit its stake in cruise line RCCL. Investors are also bracing for an economic downturn since China is definitely not doing business as usual: entire cities are isolated, factories shut down and travel disrupted.

SAS cancels flights to China
Airline stocks have been hit hard as international travel slows down. Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) joined other airlines on Thursday in announcing cancellation of its 12 weekly flights to Shanghai and Beijing, although not until February 9. Flights to and from Hong Kong will continue, but an SAS spokesman said flights to other Chinese cities would cease based “on the security aspects of this situation.”

Norwegian health authorities have claimed they’re prepared for any signs of the Corona virus in Norway, not least after it was confirmed in Finland earlier this week. None have been confirmed yet, despite false reports circulating on social media.

Norway’s tourism industry was also bracing for a downturn, since the country has become a popular destination for Chinese tourists in recent years. Norwegians travel to and from China regularly as well, not least on business. Large Norwegian companies doing business in China like Jotun, DNV-GL and Kongsberg Gruppen have set up crisis teams to follow the situation, according to news service E24.

Repatriation getting underway
Norway’s foreign ministry, meanwhile, told state broadcaster NRK on Thursday that they don’t know exactly how many Norwegian citizens are currently in China’s Hubei province, where the Corona virus initially broke out but was kept secret for several weeks. Chinese authorities only went public with it recently, apparently in an effort to prevent it from causing as much damage as China’s SARS virus did in the early 2000s.

Norwegian foreign ministry officials said they were in contact with a small group of Norwegians caught in the quarantine of the area, and were working to help them leave if they so desired. Other Norwegians currently in China were advised to closely follow local news reports and local authorities advisories, be prepared for delays or the need to alter travel plans, and to stay in close contact with family and friends at home. Norwegians were also told to follow the advice of their own public health authorities at Folkehelseinstituttet.

The ministry reported it was cooperating with other European countries in bringing home citizens. An empty flight left Portugal on Thursday with a stop in Paris to pick up doctors and extra personnel before continuing to China to bring home evacuated EU residents. Evacuations are only expected to be made from the province around the large city of Wuhan, which has been placed in quarantine. Norwegians were urged to contact their embassy in Beijing or the ministry’s operative center if they needed consular help.

Tour cancellations in Tromsø
Newspaper DN reported on Thursday that Norwegian tour operators have started receiving cancellations from Chinese groups that no longer can travel out of of China. “If the Chinese can’t travel it will of course have major consequences for us,” Trine Risvik told DN. She picks up groups of Chinese travelers at hotels in Tromsø every day to take them dogsledding and otherwise experience the Arctic outdoors. Operators of Northern Lights and fjord tours were also being hit, and hotels are vulnerable as well.

“Fortunately most of the Chinese tourists come in December and January, so the high season is coming to an end,” Anton Heijbel of Pukka Travels told DN, “but we’re prepared that this can have an effect in February and March.”

Even though oil prices rebounded slightly on Wednesday, they were down again on Thursday and a barrel of Norway’s North Sea Brent crude remained below the important USD 60-mark, at USD 58.34. The krone was down to a new low against the dollar, which remains the most widely used international currency.

One economist in Oslo told DN earlier this week, however, that the krone’s “mystical” weakness over the past two years can be tied to “money running out of the country.” Kjetil Martinsen, senior economist at Swedbank, concluded from his own analysis of currency exchange statistics at Norway’s central bank (Norges Bank) that foreign investors and companies sold off around NOK 400 billion worth of assets in recent years. The buyers were mostly Norwegian, and Norway’s central bank has bought kroner itself when foreign banks have sold.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund