American travel interest in Sochi Olympics looks frigid

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The road to Sochi, Russia, for U.S. citizens hoping to cheer at the Winter Olympics has been fraught with obstacles, and it seems to be resulting in fewer bookings.

Seeing the fallout have been several sports travel operators with meager U.S. bookings to the Games, which run Feb. 7-23. “We didn’t hit our sales goals at all,” said Anbritt Stengele, owner of the Chicago-based Sports Traveler tour operation. “We’re 75% down from where I expected us to be.”

Then there’s Roadtrips in Winnipeg, which serves U.S. travelers. A source at the sports travel operator who asked to be anonymous told Yahoo Travel the company has ceased its Sochi offerings because of a lack of accommodations, the level of service available and corruption. In the source’s words, “We pulled the plug on it.”

There are no solid estimates yet on the number of Americans who will travel to Sochi for the Games. But Henry H. Harteveldt , a travel industry analyst and strategist with Hudson Crossing LLC, weighed in on Sochi’s distance and price inhibitors with Yahoo Travel: “I will not be surprised if Sochi attracts the fewest U.S. visitors among post-WWII Winter Olympics. Sochi is one of the least accessible cities for Western visitors, and though Sochi recently opened a new airport designed to handle the larger crowds expected during the Olympics, air service remains somewhat limited.”

The issues leading travelers to abstain from attending are many, including recent anti-LGBT legislation and terrorist activity. In June, Russia enacted a law banning the promotion of “gay propaganda” to minors. Penalties are strict, with fines up to $3,100, and for foreign citizens, the possibility of 14 days in jail and deportation.

Then, on Dec. 29-30, two, suicide bombings occurred in Volgograd, 600 miles northeast of Sochi’s Olympic Park, killing at least 34 people. Since then, Russian President Vladimir Putin has put the country’s forces on combat alert.

Among security measures in place is a Spectator Pass regulation. Already, Visa requirements for entering Russia have proved daunting. With the Visa process, which can take up to 15 business days, Russia has the right to request items such as bank statements, employer statements regarding wages, U.S. property ownership documents and a certificate on the makeup of the applicant's family.

On Friday, the U.S. State Department issued a travelers’ alert, advising Americans traveling to Sochi for the Games to “avoid large crowds in areas that lack enhanced security measures,” in part because of the recent violence. For its part, the Russian government has said that 100,000 security personnel would be working in and around Sochi.

Nevertheless, CoSport, the Authorized Ticket Reseller (ATR) for the United States Olympic Committee, told Yahoo Travel that ticket sales to Olympic events have been steady. “Growing interest in the Olympic Winter Games and the allure of Russia led to good demand, and sales hit expected levels,” says spokesperson Michael Kontos. “While the choice of events is now limited, good tickets continue to be available and will remain on sale on a will-call basis for pickup in Sochi.”

Acquiring the Spectator Pass, required for entering all Olympic events, subjects ticket holders to background checks by the Russian Federal Security Service. Applying for a Spectator Pass is done online, with non-activated passes delivered by mail, or available for pickup at one of five spectator registration centers -- three in Sochi, one in Krasnodar and one in Moscow. These are also the sites where Spectator Passes must be activated in person. Says Kontos, “CoSport worked to try to ease the processes for obtaining visas and Spectator Passes. While everyone ultimately has to complete the processes in person, we provided our customers with as much information and assistance as possible to ease their experience.”

Stengele told Yahoo Travel her clients have encountered problems obtaining the Spectator Pass. “Some have had issues with the website. Others have had their passes lost in the mail.” At this point, passes are no longer being mailed and must be picked up at a registration center. The uncertainty about both potential queues and the process has increased Stengele’s clients’ anxiety. “This is the biggest logistical extra security provision that came about late, and it’s causing the most confusion among our clients.”

As if these issues aren’t discouraging enough, there are other reasons fans are choosing to watch the Games from home. Daniel Gamba, executive vice president of Cartan Global, an Authorized Ticket Reseller for 42 National Olympic Committees, told Yahoo Travel the company’s drop in requests for Olympic travel packages from the U.S. has been “significant. … Bookings have been very minimal compared with other events. A common response has been concern over prices and distance.”

Logistics have been a consideration. According to Harteveldt, “Most flights serving Sochi are from Moscow, and are operated by Russian airlines such as Aeroflot and Transaero. Austrian and Turkish operate flights to their respective hubs of Vienna and Istanbul. It’s possible that more international airlines will start or add flights to international hubs for the Olympics.”

Despite these efforts, snags can be anticipated. “Capacity may be limited and fares may be expensive,” says Harteveldt. “Supposedly, the airport (AER) sometimes experiences weather problems during the winter, which could inconvenience Olympics visitors. A train line between the airport and Sochi city center was supposed to be built to help serve Olympics visitors.”

In a report from Hopper Research, a typical price tag for U.S. flights to Sochi ranges from $1,000 to $1,600, depending on the origin city. Flight times, including stops, log in at over 17 hours.

Get to Sochi and there’s the obstacle of obtaining accommodations. Stengele says there remain some slots for U.S. citizens looking to book Olympic travel, but availability is slim. On top of this, hotel prices are skyrocketing, another issue pointed out by the United States Embassy in Moscow. “Given the increased demand for hotel rooms, prices will be inflated during the Olympic period. Advertised rates for standard rooms are currently as much as $750-$1,000 per night. While these rates will continue to fluctuate based on demand for the rooms, travelers should be prepared to pay premium rates for hotel accommodations.”

Price hikes during events like the Olympics are typical, says Stengele. “With limited availability, rooms are at a premium, so it’s the hotels’ prerogative to charge what they’re worth.” More of an issue for sports travel operators is Sochi’s lack of four- and five-star properties. “That piece of it really hurt us in the beginning,” says Stengele. “Couple it with all the bad PR, and it finished off the event.”

Indeed, Thomas T. Hagemann, district director for Carlson Rezidor hotels in Sochi, the leading international hotel operator in Sochi with five hotels and 1,694 rooms in operation, told Yahoo Travel their properties are sold out.

As for the possibility of cancellations due to security fears, Hagemann says don’t count on it. “We haven’t received many calls from guests seeking reassurance about safety. Carlson Rezidor prioritizes a high level of security at our hotels globally.”