American travel interest in Sochi Olympics looks frigid
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.”