Agents who serve Arab market face challenges

By Laura Del Rosso and Nadine Godwin

NEW YORK -- Travel agents who serve Arab and Arab-American clients are struggling with deeper business troubles than their agent peers across the U.S.

These are agents who count among their clients citizens of Middle Eastern countries buying one-way tickets home, or Arab Americans who are U.S. citizens who have lived here for years. Some have clients with the first name of Osama.

Many of their customers, including long-time U.S. residents, have sworn off travel fearing harassment at airports or on airplanes.

"Arabs just aren't traveling," said Amin Otaibi, owner of Sahara Travel, Dearborn, Mich. "They are concerned about being harassed and afraid of terrorist attacks. Contributing to that is the economy, which is weak. Without exaggeration, I'd say our business is down by 85%."

Dearborn is home to the nation's largest Arab-American community, an estimated 300,000 people. Before Sept. 11, there were nine travel agencies serving the ethnic community, but two have shut down since then, Otaibi said.

At Arabian Horizons Travel, another Dearborn agency, clients are staying home rather than face what they believe to be the difficulties of traveling as an Arab American.

"A lot of people are afraid of going to the airport and being interrogated," said Abdo Zindani, assistant manager. "We're telling people to be patient and to do whatever they are instructed to do and be helpful to officials," he said.

Agents also are telling Arab travelers that their concern is unwarranted: Overall, the treatment of Arab Americans at airports and on airplanes has improved in the last few weeks.

"Authorities have a better handle on things and they are not interrogating everybody" with Arab names, said Yasmeen Ahman, Dada Tours, Anaheim, Calif. "I think the main concern is that they think it's going to be extremely time consuming" to pass security, she said.

But Otaibi, of Sahara Travel, said it's difficult to shake people's concerns.

"My brother flew home to Saudi Arabia and was detained for six hours for no reason" when he left Detroit, Otaibi said.

"I'm trying to put on a happy face and tell my clients there's no reason for them not to travel but then they hear that and it's difficult to keep that happy face," he said.

Ayman Saad, owner of Skywings Travel, Anaheim, Calif. said the little business he has had involves college students going home to the Middle East.

His struggle, he said, is to convince his clients that travel is not difficult.

Immediately after Sept. 11, travel for Arabs "was not good, but now those who are traveling are telling me they are surprised by how well they are being treated. Things have definitely gotten better."

He recently booked a client with the first name of Osama on a flight home to the Middle East and had no qualms telling him he would be treated fairly by law enforcement and immigration officials.

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, the agents themselves were placed under some scrutiny from law enforcement, which they said they understand and accept.

A large percentage of the tickets the agencies are selling are one-way tickets to the Middle East. In some cases, parents, concerned about a backlash against Arabs in the U.S., are ordering their college student children studying in the U.S. to travel home.

Saad said the FBI questioned him about clients, and he was happy to help.

"I didn't mind in the least. In fact, it was I who contacted the FBI and offered to help."

There is one thing these agents have in common with other agency owners across the country: Survival of their businesses is topmost in their minds.

Asmad, who said Dada's business is down about 80% since Sept. 11, said the situation is made more difficult because fall is normally the peak season for booking, when families make plans to return home for the holiday season.

Asked how he will keep his agency afloat in the coming months, Skywings' Saad said, "the coming months? Call me next week. But I may not be open anymore."

Segheer Hussain, who is a counselor at Popular Travel in Brooklyn, N.Y., said his clients -- almost exclusively Pakistani -- are not especially worried about dealing with tightened security at U.S. airports. "They are used to high security" in Pakistan, he said.

However, he said, while the agency's business is not off too much because "people like to go home," he is seeing conflicting emotions among clients who also are a little frightened by the news out of Pakistan and seem unsure about whether some of their trips are wise.

As a result, he said, he is seeing more bookings followed by cancellations and rebookings than usual.

Fakir Fakir, owner of Fakir International Travel in Brooklyn, said his business is "not so great" although he does have a theory as to why many of his Arab clients are not traveling. It could simply be a result of layoffs, he said, rather than concerns about the experience itself.

He said, for those who are traveling, he offers the standard advice about security and what they can take as carry-ons. Beyond that, he said, "they are aware of the [heightened] security. They see the TV." Fakir estimated that clients of Arab extraction accounted for more than half his business.

In Fremont, Calif., which has the largest Afghan population in the U.S, with 60,000 people of Afghan origin, there is little business from that community, according to Jessica Semren, an agent Fremont Travel/CEO Travel.

She said the agency has not had do any counseling about telling people whether to travel or not to travel because "we just don't see anyone traveling."

Fortunately for the agency, travel from the local Muslim and Afghan community makes up a small percentage of its $22 million in annual sales.

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