Taking a hit

September 21, 2016

Terrorism, disease, natural disasters, one after the other, have seemingly conspired to test the fortitude of travelers around the world.

Terror attacks have rocked tourism hot spots such as Paris, Istanbul, Orlando and Nice, France, while Zika cut a swath of infection from Brazil to Miami.

The toll on the travel industry is not clear, but there are signs that all these things are having an impact. Long-haul travel to Europe decreased this summer by 0.9% after five years of 6.5% annual growth, according to ForwardKeys, an airline data analysis firm. The decline is expected to continue: Bookings to Europe from Sept. 1 to Oct. 5 are currently down 1.4%, ForwardKeys found. In Miami, the firm said, there has been a "wave of cancellations" to the area for travel over the Thanksgiving holiday. Flight bookings plummeted 21% after having been 11% ahead of where they were at the same time last year.

"Consumer travel is notoriously sensitive to bad news, and this is a dramatic demonstration of that effect," said ForwardKeys CEO Olivier Jager.  

Travelers can choose to avoid locations that have felt the impact of terror, disease and natural disasters, but there are people whose tourism businesses are rooted in each of those places.

What follows are accounts told to Travel Weekly reporters by hotel managers, tour operators and travel agents in places struck by the Islamic State, earthquakes or the Zika virus about what it's like on the ground in destinations that make headlines for all the wrong reasons.


Miami-area merchants, hotels hoping Zika won't cause long-term damage

By Robert Silk

MIAMI -- The Zika outbreak here has drawn the nation's attention and concern. But on the streets of the Zika zones -- Miami Beach and the city's Wynwood district -- life seems mostly normal.

"People aren't walking around with hazmat suits," said Rolando Aedo, chief marketing officer for the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Nevertheless, there is concern about what impact the outbreak will have on the tourism business in South Beach and throughout the city.

"What's most at risk is really that mid- to-longer-term business," said Aedo, who added that hoteliers believe their greatest vulnerability is in the meetings and events sector. "We're talking about Q4 business and 2017 business."

Rolando Aedo
Rolando Aedo

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared a 1.5-square-mile area of Miami Beach a Zika transmission zone on Aug. 19, three weeks after a square mile area of Wynwood, just north of downtown, won the ignominious distinction of being the first such zone in the U.S.

By the onset of September, the Florida health department had confirmed 45 Zika cases that were transmitted in the Miami area, as opposed to having been contracted elsewhere when the victim had been traveling.

Also at the start of September, Florida officials found Zika-infected mosquitoes for the first time during the testing of a population taken from Miami Beach.

If the experience of Wynwood merchants is any indication, Miami Beach businesses have reason to be concerned. Wynwood merchants reported drops in sales of between 40% and 60% in the weeks after the outbreak was confirmed on July 29, said David Polinsky, a member of the Wynwood Business Improvement District board.

By late August, he said, it felt as if pedestrian and vehicular traffic were on the increase in the neighborhood, which draws tourists for its graffiti murals, art galleries, cafes and bars. That increase corresponded with the slowing in the number of new Zika cases reported in Wynwood.

"It will take awhile to recover for sure," Polinsky said. "It's been a reputational hit."

Zika was clearly on the mind of management at the Golden Bar boutique on Miami Beach’s Washington Avenue.
Zika was clearly on the mind of management at the Golden Bar boutique on Miami Beach’s Washington Avenue. Photo Credit: Robert Silk

Early hotel data tracked by the analytics firm STR was inconclusive as to whether the Zika outbreak had taken a toll on hotel bookings in Miami Beach or near Wynwood. For the week that ended

Aug. 27, the first week after Zika was confirmed in the area, RevPAR in Miami Beach was up 1.2% from last year, and room occupancy was 3.3% higher. Both of those results were better than each of the four previous weeks.

In contrast, RevPAR and occupancy in the downtown and northeast Miami area, where Wynwood is located, were down significantly during each of the first four weeks of August compared with last year. In contrast, during the last two weeks of July, immediately before the Wynwood outbreak, that area outperformed 2015.

Aedo said that in a meeting between the Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau and 20 hotels in late August, the main message he heard was that it was business as usual.

"Our hotels are full. Our pools are full," Aedo said.

Still, hoteliers reported a handful of meetings cancellations. A source of frustration, he said, is that some meetings planners were considering canceling events during the winter dry season, when mosquitoes are far less common in South Florida.

"That leads us to believe we need to do more to communicate," Aedo said.

Though he said leisure bookings did not appear to be taking much of a hit from the outbreak, there were signs that hoteliers were concerned.

When contacted for this report, for example, hoteliers were consistently shy about discussing the Zika outbreak. The Greater Miami & the Beaches Hotel Association did not respond to an interview request.

One industry representative who did speak was James Blakeslee, director of sales and marketing for Cellino South Beach, which will open 132 rooms along Ocean Drive early next year.

"From what I understand, there have been cancellations," he said. "It's a concern. Hopefully this is it, and it goes, and we open with it not being a concern."

Europe remains popular despite wait-and-see attitude after terror attacks

By Jamie Biesiada and Danny King

After a summer in which Istanbul was shaken by both terror attacks on Ataturk Airport and an attempted military coup, Pinar Timer's optimism about travel demand to Turkey's largest city became decidedly guarded.

"For a while, it was like a standstill," Timer, general manager at Istanbul's Pera Palace Hotel Jumeirah, said in a Sept. 2 interview. "For the last 15 days, we've started to have good reservation numbers, but I don't know if it's a sign of a good trend or temporary."

With terror attacks striking Istanbul, Paris and Nice, France, within the past 10 months, hoteliers in some of the world's most desired tourist destinations have had to contend with falling occupancy rates as skittish travelers take a wait-and-see approach.

"There has been a huge impact on the entire Cote d'Azur region," said Radisson Blu Hotel Nice general manager Eric Van Dalsum, who estimated that Nice's hotel room demand is 30% lower than a year ago. "As tends to be the case in these situations, immediately after the attack, we received a large number of cancellations."

Nor are the declines confined to the hotel industry.

"It's a tough year, to be very honest," said Bob Preston, a France-based travel agent with Panache.Voyage. He added that the percentage of trips he is selling to France and Switzerland has fallen from around 80% to 40%. "After the Nov. 13 shootings [in Paris], we had just a rash of cancellations, and that was very dramatic. Things were kind of going well in the spring until Nice, and Nice has really slowed things down."

Radisson Blu Nice Hotel GM Eric Van Dalsum said room demand is 30% lower than last year.
Radisson Blu Nice Hotel GM Eric Van Dalsum said room demand is 30% lower than last year.

Julie Mautner, a travel adviser with Provence Post Travel, said she communicates regularly with more than 100 hospitality providers in the tour guide, accommodations and restaurant sectors. "Everybody says business is off," she said. "My clients who express their concern to me understand that I can't reassure them, and I'm not going to. I'm not going to tell anyone that it's safe or not safe. None of us know."

But despite the attacks and uncertainty, Europe remains a prime travel destination as many Americans take advantage of the dollar's strength against the euro and the British pound. In fact, Europe's RevPAR has risen 2.7%, while occupancy has remained steady at about 74%.

The Chief Marketing Officer Council's GeoBranding Center, in partnership with an AIG Travel survey, said that 42% of the travelers it polled said Western Europe was where they expected to travel next, followed by the U.S., at 15%.

Travel Leaders Group's fall travel survey said Europe accounted for six of the top 10 international destinations that agents are booking for the rest of the year, topped by London. In fact, Paris moved up one spot from a year ago, to No. 5 on the list, while three-quarters of agents surveyed said their European land-based bookings are at least as high as last year.

"In all honesty, [9/11] had much more of an effect on tourism, at least in my own particular sector, than the recent terrorist attacks," said Emma James-Aldridge, CEO of Hotels Afloat, a France-based operator of barges and self-drive boat cruises. She said business is up about 14% this year. "The only concern that some have raised has been about flying into Paris. For such people, we have been able to suggest alternatives. It is easy to fly into Geneva and then travel by train or hire a car into France."

On the other hand, Ronald Rens, president of the Bordeaux Wine Experience, said, "I can't say that it has impacted us at all."

That said, about one in seven agents in the Travel Leaders Group survey said clients were holding off on European trips; the top two reasons were "terror threats" and "political uncertainty."

Meanwhile, France and Istanbul hotels had already been suffering through the first half of the year, and that was prior to Turkey's attempted coup and the Bastille Day cargo-truck attack that killed 86 people in Nice. France's second-quarter RevPAR dropped 13% from a year earlier, with occupancy down about four percentage points, to 68%, according to STR. Turkey fared worse, as second-quarter RevPAR plunged 37% from a year earlier, while occupancy was down 16 percentage points, to 51%.

"There are so many good things happening in Turkey," Timer said, citing Istanbul's infrastructure improvements and the new Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge over the Bosporus. "But the most important thing is that we change how Turkey's perceived. If we cannot change the way we are looked at from the outside, it's really difficult to get new business."

Cruise lines' business with Turkey cut drastically after several incidents

By Tom Stieghorst

Turkey's cruise business has been cut in half in 2016. Most cruise lines that cater to North Americans pulled out either early in the year or around the time of the military uprising in July.

No one has been more affected by that than Turkish shore excursion companies that showcase the mosques of Istanbul, the ruins of Ephesus and the shops and restaurants of Kusadasi to passengers.

"It has definitely affected business tremendously," said Karen Fedorko Sefer, owner and president of Sea Song Tours, a Virtuoso and Signature affiliate based in Istanbul.

Sefer said she saw things slowing down in November. As a result, she decided to close the cruise ship portion of her business, cutting her staff from 95 to 40.

That was before the bombing in the Istanbul airport in June and the failed military coup in July.

Karen Sefer
Karen Sefer

"Business is tough," she said.

Tourists are still coming to Turkey, just not on cruise ships. "I still think Turkey is a very viable tourism destination. I still have people who want to go to eastern Turkey, who want to go to the Black Sea, who want to go to the countryside. They don't necessarily like cruising. They like being on the land, experiencing the culture, experiencing the people."

While recently attending Virtuoso's Travel Week convention in Las Vegas, Sefer said, "All of our discussions were about our yacht business and things other than cruises that the clients can do in Turkey."

Turkey represents only about 5% of the cruise business in the Mediterranean, but it is home to one of two turnaround ports in the eastern Med, along with Piraeus, near Athens.

Most recently, Holland America Line canceled all six of its remaining calls in Turkey in 2016. The move means that thousands of passengers won't be coming to Istanbul or Kusadasi on ships such as the Koningsdam or the Prinsendam.

"We can plan a business without cruise lines," Sefer said. "There are people who are still coming. The people who are coming are having an amazing time because it's not crowded. The sites are incredible because there are very few people there. Hotel prices are excellent because the hotel occupancies are low. So, it's really the perfect time to go."

Sea Song, formed in 2000, offers tours in the port cities of Istanbul, Kusadasi and Bodrum as well as in Cappadocia, in the Turkish interior.

Sefer said that many of the employees she had to let go were experienced workers.

"We have very seasoned people, people who have been with us for many years," Sefer said. "Unfortunately, the business can't support all of them, and I don't see that changing anytime in the near future."

Nepal's tourism industry is still coming back after damage from earthquake

By Sarah Feldberg

Kush Hari Phuyal was at the Kathmandu airport on April 25, 2015, leading an Intrepid Travel tour group on its way to Everest Base Camp when a 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit Nepal.

"We all huddled together on the runway and saw dust all over the city. We were scared," he remembered, "but we all stayed calm."

Intrepid had almost 200 travelers in Nepal at the time, and Phuyal and the rest of the staff worked quickly to get them booked on flights out of the country. Over the course of the next few weeks, more than 100 aftershocks rattled the country. By the time the tremors ceased, thousands were dead, many more were injured or homeless and the tourism industry was in chaos.

"Our tour operations in Nepal were significantly impacted by the earthquake," said Phuyal, now group deputy operations manager for Intrepid in Nepal. "We had to cancel all the trips immediately set to [operate], because most of the hotels and teahouses were damaged."

The Kathmandu Guest House, where Intrepid has its local offices and where most its itineraries start, was also damaged by the quake.

Destruction radiated beyond the city. Some trails were badly damaged, including the area near Tok Tok, where a landslide during the earthquake wiped out certain sections. The trails were repaired within three months, but many historic sites in Kathmandu, including Durbar Square and the ancient royal city of Bhaktapur, remain under reconstruction.

Tourism dropped significantly in the quake's aftermath.

"Our business was done for the year, and really until this fall it was pretty much wiped out," said Julie McCormack, Asia program director for Mountain Travel Sobek, which launched in 1969 with trips to Nepal. "People were worried about going there."

Phuyal said, "For about five months there were very few tourists in Nepal, and the country was in an intense rebuilding state."

June, July and August, the months immediately after the disaster, coincided with Nepal's annual low season, and Phuyal said Intrepid's departures didn't really start up again until September.

Within a month of the quake, the company launched the Namaste Nepal campaign, donating all profits from 2015-16 trips in Nepal to rebuilding efforts, Phuyal said. The campaign has raised more than $450,000.

Weeks after the earthquake, damage assessments took place at sites such as the Hotel Lamjung View & Restaurant.
Weeks after the earthquake, damage assessments took place at sites such as the Hotel Lamjung View & Restaurant.

Mountain Travel Sobek got involved in recovery efforts by creating a nonprofit relief fund and reaching out to the company's network for donations. "We have a whole community of guides and porters and local operators and drivers that we employ, and their livelihood was severely affected by the earthquake," McCormack said. The nonprofit eventually raised $100,000 that was distributed through Mountain Travel Sobek guides to staff and grass-roots relief projects.

Today, the Intrepid's departures are running more or less as they did before the earthquake. "We are visiting the same places and staying at mostly the same hotels," Phuyal said. "Within five months they all had been renovated and made back to normal."

The damaged trails have been repaired and reopened, and most tourist destinations have been reconstructed. "However, locally, some of the family houses still have not [been rebuilt], and the Nepalese government is in the process of doing it, [but] it's going a bit slowly," Phuyal said.

Visitation has also rebounded. "This fall we've finally seen a complete resurgence, and we're in a position where we don't even have enough guides to lead all of our trips and we've had to retain more guides," McCormack said.

Phuyal agreed. "It took a full year before we returned to pre-earthquake levels. Now, at the beginning of trekking season we're seeing the same numbers as we did in 2014. In 2017, we'll be back to normal operating: the same number of departures and some new trips, as well."

The earthquake and its toll are still visible to tourists arriving in Nepal, and Phuyal doesn't necessarily think that's a bad thing.

"Yes, there is still some evidence, and you can see the unbalanced and destroyed homes," he said. "We always get questions about it, and, in a way, it helps visitors understand the importance and positive impact of their visit."

Thailand remains one place where terror attacks have not affected tourism

By Jamie Biesiada

August's bombings in Thailand hit five provinces, killing a handful of people and injuring several dozen. The attacks appeared to target popular tourist spots, like Phuket. But they seemed to have had little, if any, effect on U.S. tourists heading there, a result of factors ranging from scant media coverage to the fact that the Islamic State (ISIS) was not involved.

Thailand is no stranger to disruptions. In late 2013, government protesters took to the streets of Bangkok in an attempt to shut down the city, and in 2015 a bomb killed 20 people outside a shrine in the city. Yet people in tourism there say business has proven resilient.

"There have been some troublesome times in the recent history of Thailand, but what they've shown us is how resilient Thailand's tourism industry is," said William Haandrikman, general manager of the Sofitel Bangkok Sukhumvit.

Haandrikman said that the recent bombings, which occurred two hours from Bangkok, did not impact the capital as much as the 2015 bombings or the 2014 government protests.

"[The recent bombings were] really isolated to one weekend, and the perpetrators were quickly apprehended," he said, adding that "tourism in Thailand is still on the rise, and we have more repeat guests."

In recent years, travel to Thailand has steadily increased. Data from Trisept Solutions via VAX VacationAccess, used by more than 70,000 agents in the U.S., show that Thailand shopping has increased 120% since 2015. Bangkok is the top destination in Thailand, with 50% growth, followed by Phuket, up more than 200%.

Jim Augerinos, president of Perfect Honeymoons, said sales to Thailand are strong and that it is a popular choice for first-timers to Asia and more economical than the Maldives, Bora Bora or Fiji.

Jim Augerinos
Jim Augerinos

"I have been noticing, definitely, a ton of requests for Thailand in the past couple of years just because people know that it's a good value," he said. "But yet, you can still get the exotic beach vacation, mixed with culture, Thai food, riding elephants, beach and snorkeling."

Even the week right after the bombings, Augerinos said, he had at least three Thailand requests.

"Maybe it's a distance thing," he said. "Maybe people pay more attention to all the bad stuff happening here in the States and the stuff in Europe, because it seems to get more press. When something happens in Africa or Asia, you don't hear about it as much on our news, but if something happens in Paris or there's a school shooting or some type of shooting here in the States, that gets front and center."

G.W. "Sandy" Ferguson, managing director of Asia Desk, a travel consultancy firm, also said Thailand is a steady destination. He said bookings dropped last month for October and November, but later sales were solid. However, he attributed the dip to the U.S. election, a trend he has noticed every four years.

Ferguson also pointed out that the Thailand bombings did not receive nearly the media coverage in the U.S. compared with the terrorist attacks in France, for example.

The bombings are also not believed to have been related to ISIS. "I think people are much more spooked by ISIS than they are by this," said Catherine Heald, CEO of Asia-bound tour operator Remote Lands, based in New York and Bangkok.

Remote Lands had several groups in Thailand at the time of the bombings, and several others were scheduled to head there just days after. Heald said that no clients changed their plans.

Kendra Thornton, president of Royal Travel and Tours, was in Bangkok at the time of the bombings and after the incident traveled to a Thai island, Ko Kut. She said her group did not adjust its itinerary based on the attack, and the bombings have had no impact on clients' interest in Thailand.

When issues there arise, Haandrikman said, guests look for "some reassurance." In response, he and his team conduct "lobby ambassador shifts" making themselves available to "talk face-to-face with guests, answer their questions and find out their concerns."

"Our team has been equipped with crisis training," he said. "Which is really centered around communication."

Data from Trisept Solutions show Bangkok is the top destination in Thailand, with 50% growth, followed by Phuket, up more than 200%. Incorrect information appeared in an earlier version of this article.