A series of bombings in the Russian city of Volgograd last week presented yet another challenge for the embattled Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, which had already been booking way below expectation, according to tour operators that sell the Olympics.
“Our bookings have been way off,” said Anbritt Stengele, president of Chicago-based Sports Traveler, a tour operator selling packages to the Sochi Games. “Although we had been projecting a smaller number because of the location, the area, the difficulty of getting there, it ended up trending way off.”
In addition to Sochi’s remote location and the unfavorable PR for Russia in the lead-up to the Games, most notably surrounding anti-gay legislation enacted earlier this year, a series of deadly bombings in the southern Russian city of Volgograd last week cast another pall over the Games.
A suspected suicide bombing in Volgograd killed at least 14 people, according to news reports, one day after a deadly blast at the city’s main train station killed 17 people and wounded dozens more. Volgograd is 600 miles to the northeast of Sochi, which lies in the southwestern corner of Russia on the Black Sea.
In response to the attacks, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) last week expressed confidence that it can deliver a safe and secure Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.
“I am certain that everything will be done to ensure the security of the athletes and all the participants of the Olympic Games,” IOC President Thomas Bach said in a statement.
But the attacks will not help the fact that Sochi is simply not attracting the same numbers of U.S. travelers as previous Olympics and other major sporting events.
Stengele said she is sending fewer than 50 people to Sochi, compared with the 350 she sent to the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008.
“It’s not just the location issue that’s the problem,” said Stengele, noting that there was also unfavorable media coverage about whether the venues would be ready in time or if there would be adequate transportation to and from Sochi. Additionally, she said, there is a lack of four- and five-star hotels, the kinds of properties many of her clients request.
“On top of that, now we have security concerns,” she noted. “It’s been a tough event for us to sell.”
Adam Dailey, chief strategy officer for Ludus Tours in Austin, Texas, which also books travel to Olympic events, said Sochi is booking at about 50% of what previous Winter Olympics were booking this far out from the event.
In addition to the fact that recent winter Games were held in more accessible cities like Vancouver and Salt Lake City, noted Dailey, Russia’s strict visa requirements mean that last-minute bookings for Sochi will be out of the question.
Lower-standard accommodations and long flight routes through Moscow, which is still a three-hour flight from Sochi, are making it difficult to attract the casual fan, as well, added Dailey.
Add to that the recent security issues, Dailey said, and “it’s definitely making it more of an event that people are really happy to watch on TV.”
Regardless of the turnout, for better or for worse, the coverage of the Winter Olympics has put Sochi on the map, noted Stengele. And as with previous Olympics, coverage will showcase not just Sochi but Russia and the surrounding region. But it remains to be seen how and whether the event will impact tourism numbers to Russia in the aftermath of the closing ceremony.
Follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly.