“Keep calm and visit Ukraine,” says one travel insurance supplier’s recent marketing campaign, in a tone-deaf call for travel advisors to become evangelists for travel to Ukraine (Visit Ukraine – INFORMATION PAGE FOR FOREIGN TOURISTS).
And indeed, travel advisors report that many clients are holding steady on their planned cruises and FITs in the region, if not to Ukraine itself. Still, though, as final payments come due, politics and the drumbeat of military operations are beginning to take a toll.
“I sell cruises only, and I’m a top producer for Virtuoso, so I have lots of people going to that region—and surprisingly few have canceled,” says Linda Speer of Cruises by Linda in Harrison, AR. “Still, I have a group of seven cabins booked on a Baltic cruise in September that’s looking instead for something to do domestically. Between omicron and this Ukraine business, it was just too much uncertainty.”
Of course, that’s something Speer has gotten used to of late. “We’re moving a huge number of cruise bookings from 2022 to 2023—over 25%—and many are booking into 2024. So many have booked and rebooked, some up to five times, it just feels like some days we’re just churning.”
With so much time before final payment for that Baltic cruise, “you’d think they would wait to cancel,” she says. But as always, she buttoned her lip and followed the client’s lead. “Ultimately the client has to be the one who makes the decision, so I try to be supportive whichever way they are heading. People often have already made up their mind before they call; they just want someone to listen and affirm that what they are doing is correct.”
As the days pass and the troubles do not, however, Speer is readying a marketing piece “for people who are spooked and want to stay close to home.” She will highlight some lesser-known cruise lines like Victory, Viking on the Mississippi and Great Lakes, Uncruise in Hawaii and Alaska, and American Cruise Line in the Pacific Northwest. In the meantime, she has pitched the Snake River to her Baltic cancellation.
For now, she says, “I try to tell people that sometimes you need to let the dust settle and not make sudden rash decisions. You don’t have to decide until final payment is due. If you cancel and then go to rebook, your cabin isn’t going to be there and prices will be higher.”
Ready or Not?
Still, as of early this week (who knows what will happen before we go to press?!?) Lynne Thomsen Rinkoski, who will serve as the Signature Travel Network Host on the Silversea Black Sea cruise on May 14, says only one of the 80 Signature customers scheduled to sail has canceled. “Our cruise stops in Odessa, which is a distance from the Russian border; no cruise line is going to put their passengers in danger,” she says. “We are ready to go.”
ASTA’s River Cruise Expo in March, with 600 travel advisors, is still on. “I’ll be in Budapest March 15,” says Helen Prochilo. “If it will be dangerous to travel, I have no doubt ASTA will cancel the event. That’s the only way I would not go.”
Many customers, too, are still onboard. “I have someone on an Avalon cruise beginning in Budapest, and ending in Bucharest in July,” says Julie Bartz at First Class Travel in Shawano, WI. “He messaged me yesterday and I thought, ‘uh ohxxxhere it comes’… but not a word. He booked a 20-day New Zealand trip for 2023!”
Andrew Warren of Cruise Planners in Manahawkin, NJ, is headed for the Baltics on Princess in April, with two days in St. Petersburg. “The Facebook page has many people backing out. Not me!! I trust Princess not to put us in danger,” he says.
And indeed, many are having second thoughts. Some cancel completely; Lena Brown lost eight customers who were “too nervous to go to Russia.” Crystal Smiley had two cruises for May 2022 cancel last week: “They didn’t want to move dates and have their money tied up yet again.”
Some just don’t want to have to think about politics on vacation. One couple, whose various cruise vacations have been canceled nine times since Covid hit, “were fairly desperate to travel. They weren’t cancelling again,” says their travel advisor Linda de Sosa. They moved their Russian river cruise to France and their Lindblad Eastern Russia expedition to Tahiti. “So many places to travel, why ask for trouble?”
And many cite politics. Cindy Watty is canceling her own trip in September; “we don’t want to support Russia in any way,” she says. Bernadette Osborne Tucker’s clients changed a Baltic cruise to the British Isles; “they didn’t want to spend money in Russia.” Laura Ellis “had a client this morning who voiced my own thoughts: ‘I’m looking for a cruise anywhere except St. Petersburg. Why would I want to go spend my money in Russia? What they are doing in Ukraine is just… wrong.’ ”
Diane Frisch took the same approach as Speer. ”I just got an email today from my group of 12 sailing an RCCL Baltic Cruise at the end of July. They are asking what I am hearing, and understandably nervous. Fortunately, the final payment is not until the beginning of May, so I recommended we watch and wait a little bit. They don’t need to make final payment for a month. FOR NOW, they are Ok.”
Angela Shah is leading a small group on a river cruise from Bucharest to Budapest in March. “We’ve talked about the Russia issue, but figure it’s unlikely to impact us. Everyone is just so happy to be traveling again! But to be on the safe side, I made sure our insurance covers evacuation for political unrest.”
In the end, though, trouble in the Ukraine likely will stress all Europe travel, says Corina Johnson. “About 50% or more of our leads and calls right now are for Europe or the UK; it’s totally exploding. So far *knock on wood* no one has expressed concern, but the news today had my head fuming—and has me worried. I’m not sure we have any booked to either Ukraine or Russia. But Poland, Czech Republic, and Hungary are always popular requests. And a war in the region will affect all of the EU potentially in terms of client confidence and comfort.”
For travel advisors, it’s one more round of talking clients down and rebooking. “We haven’t had pushback from clients yet, but if fighting breaks out, I’m sure we will,” Johnson says. “We all know that fighting in Eastern Ukraine will most likely not have any effect at all on these areas, but battling unfounded fears and perception is a lot of what we do. Selling Europe travel is hard enough right now with the ever-changing Covid protocols. This just adds one more layer of complication—not convincing people to not be worried, but rather to make sure they have proper info to consider in their final decision.”
Cheryl’s 40-year career in journalism is bookended by roles in the travel industry, including Executive Editor of Business Travel News in the 1990s, and recently, Editor in Chief of Travel Market Report and admin of Cheryl Rosen’s Group for Travel Professionals, a news and support group on Facebook.
As an independent contractor since retiring from the 9-to-5 to travel more, she has written regular articles about the life and business of travel agents for Luxury Travel Advisor, Travel Agent and Insider Travel Report. She also writes and edits for professional publications in the financial services, business and technology sectors.