“This is an unprecedented situation”: Kazan travel agencies have begun to suspend work due to coronavirus

Last hope for seasonal UAE and “May” Turkey

“This is an unprecedented situation”: Kazan travel agencies have begun to suspend work due to coronavirus
Photo: Maksim Platonov

It is too early for tour operators to calculate losses due to the total closure of European countries for tourists in the coronavirus epidemic: the situation has apparently just begun to unfold. However, judging by the unrest in the industry, the forecasts of Rosturizm on the closure of 20% travel agencies after the pandemic are quite real. Even before the decision to restrict flights to the EU countries, Russians refused to take foreign tours, in Tatarstan they tried to return 98% of their trips to Europe, and even Asian destinations remain in question. How much the coronavirus pandemic and panic have hit the travel agencies of the republic, whether there are still safe points on the world map for spring trips and why experts advise not to try to return money for tickets and euro tours — read in the material of Realnoe Vremya.

“The demand for foreign travel in the next month and a half will tend to zero”

Tatarstan travel agencies massively started to cancel tours to European countries, which are traditionally popular with the coming of spring, about three weeks ago, when the capital's airports deployed full-fledged headquarters for testing for coronavirus and there have begun to spread the cases of COVID-19 in Russia one after another. After a series of high-profile news about attempts to forcibly isolate compatriots who had rested in Italy, the Czech Republic, Germany and France, the situation has become even more heated.

Almost 98 per cent of Tatarstan citizens refuse to go to European countries, try to postpone or cancel trips, Ramil Miftakhov, the president of the Association of Travel Agencies of the Republic of Tatarstan, CEO of Persona Grata travel agency, told Realnoe Vremya.

Officially, only four countries are included in the list of countries not recommended by the foreign ministry for visiting (and by Rosturizm — for selling tours): China, Iran, Italy, and South Korea. It is impossible to buy tours there from February 27. However, the Federal Service for Surveillance on Consumer Rights Protection and Human Wellbeing (Rospotrebnadzor) insists on a two-week quarantine even if there are no symptoms for tourists who have returned from six more countries. The “stop list” includes France and Germany, Spain, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Norway and the United States. Many countries popular with Russians even decide to “self-isolate” and not let tourists in, so in fact, the whole Europe can be considered not too accessible and open. And this, of course, can not but hit the economy of travel agencies, everything is now “in limbo”, say industry experts.

“The tourist market is always the first to feel the cataclysms of any nature. Oil price falls, the euro and the dollar rise. Somewhere there was a tsunami, earthquake or, God forbid, some kind of terrorist attack — tourism will be affected instantly. Of course, there has never been such a scale of crisis for the tourism industry. This is an unprecedented situation because at the moment everything is going to the point that most destinations can be closed. No one knows which country will be closed tomorrow," Rustem Tarzimanov, the director of Salavat tourist services bureau, emphasizes in the interview with Realnoe Vremya.

The forecasts of tour operators are disappointing. “The demand for foreign travel in the next month and a half will tend to zero. Everything is changing too quickly," the expert states. Major travel agencies still have “light” hopes for the traditional mass destinations for the second half of spring — the UAE, where the high season has already begun, and Turkey, which seas will warm up enough by mid-May and will be ready to welcome tourists. Although experts are afraid to place bets on these areas, the situation may be too unstable.

Many countries popular with Russians even decide to “self-isolate” and not let tourists in, so in fact, the whole Europe can be considered not too accessible and open. Photo: Maksim Platonov

“We don't want to be a punching bag”: sales stop and travel agents' confusion

A number of small travel agencies in Kazan have suspended the sale of tours or even decided to close for a while. “There is a panic, and at the highest level, tourism has temporarily or even permanently died," comments the head of Kazan Intur, Viktor Stepantsov.

“Since Monday, we have suspended sales in all directions. We are afraid that country after country is being closed," explains Albina Ibragimova, the director general of Aist Tour. “Our legislation is so structured that we, travel agencies, are a kind of 'cushion' between operators and tourists: tourists are asked to return the entire amount, but operators do not return all of it. We are tired of this situation and do not want to be a punching bag. Now it is a completely wait-and-see position, and I do not see any prospects yet: people come and cancel tours.

As the most “fresh” example, tour operators cite the situation in the Czech Republic: a week ago, Russian tourists idly were strolling through the streets of Prague and quietly entering the country using Schengen, but on the evening of Thursday, March 12, the country announced the suspension of visa issuance due to the threat of coronavirus, and on Friday afternoon, it finally announced the closure of borders for all foreigners, starting from Monday. According to the latest data, 117 patients with COVID-19 have been registered in the Czech Republic. It is clearly not included in the top ten or even the top twenty countries affected by the coronavirus, so it becomes impossible to predict the actions of the authorities of a particular state. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that anyone will turn the tongue to call such measures “excessive”.

“So, it means the situation requires such restrictions. Of course, the tourist market and economy will suffer greatly, but at least this may not lead to a disaster," he concludes.

Are there “absolutely safe” countries for foreign travel?

Apparently not. Despite the fact that such statements are probably the least profitable for travel agents, most of the travel company managers surveyed by Realnoe Vremya did not recommend any specific travel destinations in the next few months.

“Now nothing can be recommended because today the situation is one but tomorrow — radically different. To talk about a particular country... In the near future, I think it is the Emirates, since May, the beach holiday Turkey will begin. Probably the Maldives, because the probability of spreading the virus from island to island is minimal," suggested Ramil Miftakhov. “While these directions can be recommended, but not 100 percent, because the situation can change dramatically at any moment. And the client decides what to do himself.

If we talk about official reports, then, according to the Russian research anti-plague Institute Microb (it is subordinate to Rospotrebnadzor and prepares reports for it), the only European country that is hypothetically interesting for the spring holiday of Russians, which has not yet reached the coronavirus, is Montenegro. There are also no cases of confirmed COVID-19, as of the evening of March 13, in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and several countries in Africa. However, these destinations are not popular among our compatriots.

The only European country that is hypothetically interesting for the spring holiday of Russians, which has not yet reached the coronavirus, is Montenegro. Photo: rumb.ru

“We are not happy ourselves”: is it possible to get a refund for a tour?

Almost all travel companies have faced with the return of tours, and in all parts of the world — even avid travelers or those who have long planned their family vacation, often prefer to listen to the recommendations of the Russian authorities and “sit out the plague” at home. Large companies ban their employees from traveling outside of Russia. Staff business trips have been canceled, for example, at KAMAZ and Russian Railways, and the day before, on March 13, the Tatarstan authorities also announced the suspension of trips of civil servants of the republic abroad.

However, so far, no clear and transparent scheme for refunds for already paid tours has been developed for market participants, both for unsuccessful tourists and for travel agencies and tour operators. At the moment, according to the 132nd Federal law 'On tourist activities', tour operators are required to return the entire cost of the purchased tour to the client if Rosturizm “recommends” to suspend their sale to epidemiologically disadvantaged countries.

But in practice, it is not so simple. Tour operators themselves have found themselves in a difficult situation, since the money in most cases is already in the accounts of hotels, where rooms have been booked, and airlines, from which tickets have been purchased. And the latter refuse to transfer funds back at all, or the issue is being considered for weeks. Accordingly, operators can not pay with travel agencies. Often, “without blood” the problem can be solved only by rescheduling the trip, not canceling it.

Staff business trips have been canceled, for example, at KAMAZ and Russian Railways, and the day before, on March 13, the Tatarstan authorities also announced the suspension of trips of civil servants of the republic abroad. Photo: Sergey Afanasyev

“It is more or less standard story when tourists agree to postpone the trip to a later date: either for a year or six months, depending on the country. If a tourist still insists that they return the money, here, most likely, only through the court. Because even if France, for example, is recognized as a high-virus country and the law requires the money to be returned — how ready the operator is to return this money and whether it has it," explains Ramil Miftakhov. “In fact, the money is already in France, in the hotel that has been booked. And if the hotel returns them, the customer has a chance to return the money, but what if not?

At the same time, suing is also a rather controversial option strategically, experts say.

The second “nuance” of the refund scheme for paid tours is the list of countries that are “epidemiologically disadvantaged” and not recommended by Rosturizm: these include only China, Iran, Italy and South Korea so far. According to the law, neither tour operators, travel agencies, nor hoteliers and air carriers must and can return money for paid tours to other destinations.

The waves of unverified information and free interpretation of the media provoke confusion among people who begin to try to return money for tours and flights to other countries, Lilia Saveleva, the director general of Inteltur Kazan, told Realnoe Vremya.

“Every person and every company is left alone with this problem, everyone comes out as best they can. There are no cardinal decisions that would support business and people," Lilia Saveleva emphasizes. “Unverified information continues to be thrown out on the market and is presented in some terrible forms.

By Olga Golyzhlybina
Tatarstan