Originally Published in The New York Times
Daniel E. Slotnik - August 24, 2020
Small, minority-owned travel agencies in New York, already pummeled by internet websites, are facing further devastation because of the pandemic.
Ahmed Al-Hassan was country-hopping in Africa when the coronavirus pandemic shut down travel across much of the continent. He and his wife, Rosy, faced an indefinite stay at an airport in Nairobi, Kenya, with no easy way to return home to New York.
If anyone could help, it was Mr. Al-Hassan’s travel agent, David Anokye, even if he was half a world away in the Bronx. So, Mr. Al-Hassan called Mr. Anokye, who answered in the middle of the night and quickly managed to secure tickets to New York. Within a day, the couple were in the air.
“We met other passengers who were stranded for four or five days,” Mr. Al-Hassan said. “They couldn’t go anywhere.”
While the cessation of most travel was an inconvenience for Mr. Al-Hassan, it could deal an existential blow to Mr. Anokye’s business and agencies like it in New York and across the country.
Even in the internet age, when plane tickets, hotel rooms and car rentals are just a click away, many people still prefer using agents, who can help navigate confusing government bureaucracies and deal with visa and passport issues. Agents can also find deals that even savvy users of travel websites might miss.
In the New York area, many travel agencies are minority-owned small businesses that are closely tied to immigrant communities, where people often prefer working with agents familiar with their homelands.
Now, an industry that has already been hurt by the dominance of travel websites is facing further devastation because of the pandemic.
A recent survey of roughly 1,600 of the nearly 14,400 members of the American Society of Travel Advisors, an industry group, found that almost three-fourths said their business would not survive longer than six months if travel remained at low levels. In the New York City region, the group counts about 2,400 agencies with nearly 15,000 employees.
While many travel agencies, like other small businesses, have been helped by emergency federal aid, including loans and grants, the long-term outlook remains bleak given the restrictions imposed by many countries to help stop the spread of the virus.
“Federal funding has temporarily stopped the hemorrhaging, but we’re still bleeding,” said Erika A. Richter, a spokeswoman for the American Society of Travel Advisors. “No matter what, our industry is going to have scars to show for it.”
Sharad Agarwal, 60, owns SN Travel and Tours, which he operates from his home in New Jersey and an office in the Jackson Heights neighborhood in Queens. It mainly caters to travelers to and from India, he said.
Since starting his agency nearly 20 years ago, he had built a roster of about 6,000 customers. The collapse in travel and a ban India imposed on most visitors unraveled much of his hard work, forcing him to close the office.
“Business is not there,” Mr. Agarwal said. “Whatever savings I have, we are surviving with that.”
Mr. Anokye, 45, who is from Ghana and whose agency, Klassique Travels, primarily serves Ghanaian immigrants in New York, said he had earned virtually no income since March and was also dipping into his savings.
He had built up his business since opening in 2005, amassing a database of over 5,000 clients, many of whom learned about him through word of mouth.
Mr. Anokye has three workers, and he has kept all of them on the job with help from an emergency federal loan for small businesses. But those funds are now gone.
“We don’t know how long this is going to be sustainable,” Mr. Anokye said. “I’m always positive about things. I don’t want to say we have to close down, but maybe we will have to let go of some employees.”
Other agents, like the owner and sole employee of Sabye Travel, have taken drastic steps to reduce expenses. The agency, started in New Jersey and now run out of the owner’s home in Virginia, specializes in travelers to and from Thailand, many of whom live in the New York area.
“We don’t eat out anymore, no more discretionary spending, no buying anything that’s not completely essential,” said the owner, who asked to be identified only by his first name, Apiwat, because he was concerned that his other job might be jeopardized if his employer found out about his travel business.
He said the pandemic had obliterated his busy season, which can generate more than $150,000 in income and usually starts in April with Songkran, the Thai New Year celebration, and continues through September. He said he refunded customers who had booked travel months in advance, and canceled plans to market tours to Thailand.
Still, after months of gloom, some agents are seeing signs that people are starting to travel.
“It just will take a little time to open back up and get where it was,” said Sunita Seegobin, who is from Guyana and who opened Sunita Travel Agency with her husband, Naresh, in Queens in 2007.
Some agents said their services might be even more valuable amid shifting travel restrictions, quarantine rules and other concerns.
Mr. Anokye compared consulting a travel agent with visiting a dentist.
“Do you go to the internet to search how to take your tooth out?” he said.
Mr. Al-Hassan, the customer Mr. Anokye helped return home, said the travel agent had helped him plan elaborate trips to 22 countries.
“Being able to have somebody who you can trust, somebody who understands you, who knows you inside out” is crucial, Mr. Al-Hassan said.
Natasha Nyanin, a writer and creative consultant on Manhattan’s Upper West Side who often writes about travel, said Mr. Anokye had planned many of her trips, finding economical fares even when her journeys involved multiple airlines.
“It wasn’t the sort of thing that I could just go online and book very easily,” she said.
Mr. Anokye said that he had started going into work after New York allowed travel agencies to reopen, but that business was still largely nonexistent.
In an interview at his neatly appointed storefront office in the Bronx’s Tremont neighborhood, he said that before the pandemic he routinely fielded 30 phone calls a day. On this particular day, Mr. Anokye and his sister, Amma Love Otoo, were the only people at work and the phone never rang while a reporter was there.
With Ghana’s airports closed to international commercial flights, Mr. Anokye spends part of his day helping out in the neighborhood, distributing masks and encouraging people to take part in the census.
Despite his financial travails, Mr. Anokye said he was hopeful that he would not have to close for good.
“I’m so passionate about this that I think I will survive,” he said, “and I don’t want to give up.”