Just when many Covid restrictions have begun to fall away and it started to look like a boon year for European travel, Russia’s war on Ukraine is making many Americans skittish about traveling overseas this year.
“The ongoing war — in full view on television and social media — certainly does have Americans rethinking travel to Eastern Europe and possibly elsewhere,” says James Ferrara, president of InteleTravel, an online travel agency with a network of over 70,000 independent travel advisors.
“The initial reaction in the U.S. has been a small but noticeable drop in ticket sales,” says Scott Keyes, co-founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights, an email subscription service for flight deals.
In the last week, InteleTravel has seen cancellations, postponements, and lower bookings for Poland, Croatia, the Czech Republic and other Eastern European countries. “Those destinations have largely disappeared from booking data and even our search data,” Ferrara said.
“Cancellations of already-booked trips by Americans to Europe have already started, although many cancellations are based on psychological fear,” says Mahmood Kahn, PhD, director of hospitality and tourism management department at Virginia Tech’s Pamplin College of Business. “It is unfortunate since the hospitality and tourism industry is just getting out of the impact due to Covid,” he says, noting that the war has started just as people are planning summer vacations.
Armed conflict has a way of unnerving tourists in a generalized way. “War and nuclear geopolitical tension are destabilizing for all international travel,” says Ferrara. “Anecdotally we’ve heard travelers question trips to Greece, Turkey, Israel, and Western Europe.”
“It has added risk to most popular destinations during summer, such as Switzerland, UK, Germany, France, and other locations,” says Dr. Khan. “Although these countries are rather away from the conflict zone the psychological impact cannot be ruled out.”
Indeed, early research seems to indicate that the war in Ukraine is causing U.S. travelers to rethink travel to a larger swath of the continent. In a recent MMGY Travel Intelligence survey of U.S. travelers, nearly two thirds (62%) cited concerns about the war in Ukraine spreading to nearby countries as a factor impacting plans to travel to Europe. That was twice the number (31%) who cited Covid-19 as a concern. Nearly half (47%) of travelers said they want to wait and see how the situation in Ukraine evolves before making plans to visit Europe this year.
With Covid-19 cases falling in the U.S. and Europe, the European travel industry was hoping that 2022 would be a rebound year. Outbound trips from the U.S. to Europe fell off a cliff during the pandemic, from 17.8 million trips in 2019 to just 2.5 million in 2020. The next year, Americans made 4.6 million trips to Europe, about a quarter of pre-pandemic levels, according to data from the National Travel and Tourism Office at the U.S. Department of Commerce.
“This is a particularly harsh reality as we have been reporting a resurgence of international travel since the beginning of the year,” says Ferrara. “Mid-haul and long-haul flights and trips have reappeared in strong measure after two years. If this conflict continues or spreads, not only will there be more tragedy and suffering for people, but the gains we have made in the rebound of international travel may be lost.”
And Russia’s attacks on six nuclear facilities, including the seizure of Ukraine’s largest nuclear plant, is spooking travelers further. “Any tinkering with nuclear armaments may result in massive movement toward cancellations in large numbers,” says Dr. Khan. “And travelers will definitely be weary if the conflict spreads to neighboring countries.”
“The potential for nuclear involvement appears to be on everyone’s mind,” says Ferrara. “That together with the possibility of a drawn-out or escalated conflict in Ukraine, further violence, or tragic consequences, has some travelers rethinking international travel beyond the immediate region.”
Not every traveler will stay away, points out Dr. Khan. “Added to the confusion that many are not familiar with the geography and extent of the conflict, this confusion creates a phobia to stay away from other countries in Europe,” he says. “Those who are frequent travelers will not get deterred by planning vacations even in the East European countries.”
While some travel-booking companies, led by Expedia, stopped sales in and out of Russia, such a move is unlikely to harm their bottom lines. “Russia, Ukraine, and most of their immediate surroundings are not high-traffic leisure destinations,” says Ferrara. “So while many companies’ hearts are in the right place with announcements they will not sell travel to Russia, these are largely symbolic gestures.”
A protracted war could pose other challenges for the travel industry. “Right now crude oil is pushing $111 a barrel, up nearly $20 from last week,” says Keyes. “If the spike in oil prices is a blip and soon falls, it’s unlikely travelers will see much impact on fares. But if it stays at this level for more than a month or two, expect fares across the board to push higher because jet fuel is the number two expense for airlines and there’s no alternative way to power most commercial aircraft yet.”
On the other hand, Keyes says a dropping demand for European travel could lead to lower trans-Atlantic fares later this year. “Airlines may be forced to spur new sales by cutting fares, especially on Europe flights for this summer. Europe fares so far aren’t noticeably different than they were last week, and if anything, you may see cheaper transatlantic fares closer to summer as a result of dampened travel enthusiasm.”
While experts recommend purchasing travel insurance during uncertain times, not all travel insurance policies are created equal. “War, acts of war, acts of foreign enemies, hostilities between nations, and civil war are not reasons for cancellation or interruption that are typically included in travel insurance,” says Angela Borden, product marketing strategist with Seven Corners, a travel insurance company. “Additionally, war and invasion are included in most plans’ general exclusions, which means there is no coverage for other types of losses and benefits.”
“If travelers want the option to cancel their trip because they are afraid of traveling due to the war or a change in the safety of their trip due to the war, they would need to buy a trip protection plan with Cancel for Any Reason,” says Borden. This kind of plan can tack an extra $350-$450 on to a typical $6,000 trip.
The popularity of Cancel for Any Reason policies have soared during the pandemic, as travelers feared contracting Covid on a trip, says Borden. “CFAR provides travelers with a way to cancel their trip if they became uncomfortable with the safety of their travel plans.”
Finally, there are many ways for American travelers to stay informed while abroad. “We encourage U.S. citizens traveling overseas to enroll their travel plans in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program so they can receive important messages about their destinations, including timely alerts and updates to travel advisories,” a U.S. State Department official told Forbes.
“We also encourage U.S. citizens traveling anywhere overseas to monitor local news, follow the emergency instructions provided by local authorities, and follow us on Twitter and Facebook for additional updates.” the official said.
Due to the military action, air space has been restricted in the immediate area of conflict over Russia and Ukraine, as well as neighboring Belarus and Moldova. Commercial flights in and out of the region have largely stopped.
The U.S. State Department has issued Do Not Travel advisories for four countries, including Ukraine, where the war is raging, and Russia, “due to the unprovoked and unjustified attack by Russian military forces in Ukraine, the potential for harassment against U.S. citizens by Russian government security officials, the embassy’s limited ability to assist U.S. citizens in Russia, COVID-19 and related entry restrictions, terrorism, limited flights into and out of Russia, and the arbitrary enforcement of local law.”
There are also war-related Do Not Travel advisories for neighboring Moldova due to the armed conflict in the region and for Belarus “due to the arbitrary enforcement of laws, the risk of detention, the Russian military attack on neighboring Ukraine, the buildup of Russian military in Belarus along the border with Ukraine, COVID-19 and related entry restrictions.”
Travelers considering a trip to Europe are also advised to consult the U.S. State Department travel advisories.