Exeter International: How the Crimea Situation Is Affecting Travel

The world continues to wait and see what will happen in Ukraine, now that Russian troops control the Crimean region of the country. Late last week, lawmakers in Crimea voted in favor of leaving the country for Russia and putting it to a regional vote, due to take place early next week. On Friday, the U.S. State Department once again warned against non-essential travel to the country, “particularly the Crimea Peninsula,” because of the Russian occupation. 

According to NBC News, the department said the U.S. Embassy in Kiev was still open but had limited ability to respond to emergencies for U.S. citizens in other parts of Ukraine. Family members of U.S. government personnel in Ukraine can leave the country, and Peace Corps volunteers left in late February.

Exeter International is a U.S.-based tour operator that includes trips to Russia, Ukraine and Eastern Europe as a whole. We reached out to Kevan Cowie, the company's director of sales and marketing, to see how clients were reacting to the situation.

Describing the situation as “interesting” and “very fluid,” Cowie said that the team was monitoring developments in both Russia and Ukraine day-to-day. Fortunately, he added, this time of year is the booking season rather than the travel season, so they have few clients on the ground in the area and have time to monitor what is happening.

“The primary concern is Ukraine,” he said, adding that the team is in touch with clients over there and is offering options to reroute or reschedule their tips. “We’re fully prepared to make changes and give credit, and we can rebook through 2016 for another Ukraine trip or elsewhere in our portfolio.” Exeter has not seen any cancellations for previously booked trips to Kiev, he added, and even clients who traveled to the city in December and January said that they never felt as though they were in danger. Still, he said, the company is not actively selling trips to Kiev right now. Some bookings have come in for the summer, and Cowie said Exeter will continue to monitor the situation and work with clients. 

For Russia, meanwhile, the Exeter team is primarily concerned with the visa sanctions announced late last week, which Cowie said could result in officials restricting visas for Americans in Russia. Still, he said, the operator is still getting requests for bookings to Russia and has not had any requests for cancellations. A range of trips--including customized tours, FITs and guaranteed departures--are all going forward, he added. When clients have called to ask for advice, the team has shared the same tips: “‘Hold tight for the moment. Hopefully, sane minds will prevail and there won’t be any military action.’ It is really a day-to-day situation.”

If Crimea does separate from Ukraine, Cowie added, going to the region would be the same as going to the rest of Russia. U.S. travelers would require Russian visas to get to Crimea, while they currently do not need a visa to visit Ukraine. “It would add a hurdle,” he acknowledged, but added that no one currently expects Russia to impose restrictions on travel to the region if it does split. 

Cowie also noted that travelers to Ukraine are, in general, well-traveled and know how to monitor political situations. “They’re more experienced and they’re not as likely to panic,” he said. “The traveler who chooses Ukraine is going for something off the beaten path.” 

The U.S. State Department urged U.S. citizens traveling in Ukraine to enroll in its Smart Traveler program to receive updates on security there.