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
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
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