Flood of refugees in Europe poses hurdles for operators

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Syrian refugees
Syrian refugees in Slovenia at the blocked border with Croatia on Sept. 20. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

AMMAN, Jordan — As the civil war in Syria rages on and millions of refugees flee the violence, the four-year crisis, which has already significantly dampened tourism arrivals in neighboring countries such as Turkey and Jordan, is beginning to have ripple effects in Europe, where a new wave of migrants is creating political, logistical and infrastructure challenges.

“In terms of Syria’s impact, some of our trips have been directly operationally impacted by the crisis and related issues,” said Annie Lucas, vice president of Seattle-based MIR Corp., a tour operator that specializes in Russia, Europe and Asia.

More than 500,000 migrants were detected at external European Union borders in the first eight months of the year after a fifth consecutive monthly record was registered in August when 156,000 crossed, according to European border management agency Frontex.

Last week, European Union leaders voted to find placement for 120,000 asylum seekers in countries throughout Europe.

As Europe grapples with how to manage those masses, issues involving border security and transportation have cropped up, threatening to impact tourism.

Lucas said that MIR Corp. recently had to reroute a group traveling on a seven-country Balkans tour that was scheduled to cross from Serbia into Croatia. She said the government of Croatia had reduced border crossings to a single, very congested junction, so the company diverted the trip into Bosnia and crossed into Croatia from there. Otherwise, she said, that trip had no other disruptions.

“Our train trips going out of Budapest into Central Europe and Turkey and then to Iran head east using a train station in Budapest that is not impacted, as the migrants are heading west, and there’s another railway station for that,” she added.

While the U.S. has not issued any travel advisories arising from the migrant situation in Europe, the U.K. foreign office advises that in Croatia “disruption and delays are possible at rail and road border crossings with Serbia, Hungary and Slovenia, as a result of significant numbers of people seeking to transit Croatia.”

In addition, the U.S. Embassy in Hungary earlier this month advised that there have been increasing numbers of migrants in and around Budapest’s Keleti Railway Station, resulting in large crowds and occasional demonstrations.

Rail Europe, the North American distributor of European train tickets, is recommending that travelers and agents continue to follow the situation closely to determine how it might impact rail passengers.

“Heightened security may involve longer wait times at stations, and passengers should be advised to arrive early,” said a company spokesperson. Rail Europe said it was responding to calls about the crisis and that concerned customers should reach out to their travel consultants, who will help make any necessary itinerary adjustments.

Additionally, several cruise lines this month temporarily stopped calling at the Greek island of Lesbos, where an influx of refugees from Turkey escaping the turmoil in Syria had concentrated. Regent Seven Seas, Oceania and Silversea all adjusted sailings to bypass the island, and the Greek government and the United Nations Refugee Agency brought in extra staff and ships to deal with some 25,000 migrants there, according to media reports.

As the 2016 selling season gets underway, travel companies that were hoping to see a lift next year following a relatively flat year in Europe are keeping a close watch on the refugee crisis and how and whether it might impact sales.

“In general, this year has been a soft year for travel to Europe,” said Gianni Miradoli, CEO of Central Holidays. “The events in France — Charlie Hebdo — the crisis in Egypt and the Middle East, etc. have certainly been key factors affecting bookings to Europe.

Yet, he added, Europe remains a very safe destination.

The challenge, said Trafalgar President Paul Wiseman, is that when it comes to the migrant issue in Europe right now, “you cannot escape it. It’s absolutely front and center.”

He said that while Trafalgar had not had to change any itineraries due to the refugee/migrant issue in Europe, “the danger for us, as always, is the news media inflating this to the degree that it affects sales. As of today, it’s not affecting sales.”

Middle East bears the brunt

While Europe is only now beginning to feel the extent of the Syrian crisis in the flood of new arrivals, the Middle East has been bearing the weight of it since clashes broke out in Syria in the spring of 2011.

Last week, EU leaders said they would be increasing financial aid for countries in the Middle East that are providing shelter and assistance to Syrians. Among the reasons cited for why Syrians began heading into Europe in the first place was a drying up of funds for refugee camps and services for Syrians seeking asylum in neighboring countries.

Turkey and Jordan have reportedly already absorbed millions of Syrian refugees. At the same time, their proximity to Syria has battered their tourism prospects.

In Jordan, where there is currently no unrest, the total number of overnight visitors to the country from the U.S. dropped 12.5%, to 72,800, in 2011 compared with 82,970 in 2010. That number has remained below 76,000 ever since. For the first eight months of 2015, overnight visitors from the U.S. to Jordan have been down 6.5%, and same-day visitors, often those who come in for a day trip to Petra, are down by 23%.

“We are all facing a decline in numbers,” said Malia Asfour, director of the Jordan Tourism Board for North America.

When asked how the tourism business in Jordan is faring, tour guides, drivers and vendors at tourism sites unanimously reported that business is not good. The reason most often cited was violence in Syria and Egypt, the latter of which saw another setback earlier this month when eight Mexican tourists were accidentally killed in Egypt’s western desert by the country’s security forces.

Intrepid Travel reported that North American bookings for Jordan are down 30% in 2015 compared with 2014.

Jennifer Gray, Middle East product manager for Intrepid, said, “It’s really too early to tell if 2016 will be any better, and what we’ve learned is that things can change really quickly in this region. One small incident in a country can have a huge impact on the destination and surrounding regions.”

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