With less than three weeks before the 2014 Winter Olympics begin in Sochi, Russia, police patrol the streets on the lookout for terror threats. Alexander Demianchuk/Reuters
Less than three weeks remain before the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, and a number of ominous events in Russia have cast doubt on the physical safety of people going to the Games.
While a pair of bombings in December and the more recent threats from Islamic militant groups have grabbed the spotlight in the run-up to the Games, travel agents say that Canadian tourists remain undeterred.
Ekaterina Safonova, a tour and travel consultant for Canadian Gateway in Vaughan, Ont., says clients who have booked Sochi packages have shown little anxiety about travelling there.
While she has fielded typical travel queries about how to get around the city and where to exchange money, her clients have said "nothing specifically about safety — it's not the main concern."
Serguei Solochenko, manager of InTours Corp., a Toronto-area travel agency offering Sochi packages, reports that some clients have asked questions about security, but only one has cancelled the tour package.
In an email interview, Allison Wallace, a spokesperson for Flight Centre, said her company has "no record of cancellations."
Safonova says that any high-profile global gathering is "an attractive place" for an aggrieved individual or group to carry out a terrorist attack. Vigilance and concern is "quite usual for any big tourist city or for any big international event."
But ever since Sochi was announced as the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics, geopolitical analysts have said that the city's proximity to Russia's fractious North Caucasus region posed a special threat to security.
This past weekend, an Islamic militant group from Dagestan claimed responsibility for a pair of suicide bombings in Volgograd that killed at least 34 people in December. (Volgograd is almost 1,000 kilometres from Sochi by road but it is also one of the main connecting points in the far-flung region to the Black Sea resort.)
The group posted a video online in which it threatened to target this year's games.
On Wednesday, Olympic committees in Hungary, Slovenia and Italy all reported having received terror threats ahead of the Games. According to reports, increased safety concerns have prompted Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, both members of the U.S. Olympic hockey team, to tell their families not to come to Sochi.
Safonova says that when clients raise the issue of safety in any destination, she refers them to travel.gc.ca, a website operated by Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs that provides country reports.
The Canadian government currently has a travel advisory for Sochi, suggesting visitors maintain "a high level of personal security awareness at all times and in all places. Avoid demonstrations, monitor local developments and follow the advice of local authorities."
Foreign Affairs hasn't gone so far as to issue a travel warning, which typically means that travel to the region is discouraged.
In an email interview, a spokesperson wrote that "the government of Canada has a plan in place to ensure the Games are as safe as possible, for both Canadian visitors and the athletes."
Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney issued a statement saying that "I can't comment on operational matters related to national security, but I can assure you that the safety of Canadians is paramount."
According to a statement from the RCMP, keeping visitors to Sochi safe is "the responsibility of the host nation, the Sochi Organizing Committee and the Russian authorities." But the Department of Foreign Affairs has said that a "team of consular experts will be on the ground in Sochi and in Ottawa to provide 24/7 consular assistance."
Games themselves secure
While there is much speculation about whether Russian authorities can suppress the terror threat, long-time Canadian Olympic Committee member Dick Pound is convinced that the Games themselves will be secure.
"If the focus is, 'If you go to Sochi, will you be safe during the Olympic Games?' I think the answer to that is, 'Yes you will,'" Pound told CBC Radio's The Current.
Having said that, Pound acknowledged that cities outside of Sochi's 100-kilometre security zone could be vulnerable, because "there are a lot of soft targets out there that don't have the same security attention that will surround the Olympics."
However, Ray Boisvert, a former assistant director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, has sounded a more ominous tone.
In an interview with Canadian Press, he pegged the chance of additional terror attacks inside Sochi at 20 to 30 per cent.
Boisvert also suggested that Canadians travelling to the Games should "get in and get out at the most direct route," and avoid tourist spots as well as public hubs such as train and bus stations.
Canadian-based tour operators don't take these warnings lightly, but they insist that Sochi visitors largely need to rely on common sense.
"It's difficult to give a recipe and say stay away from public places,” says InTours' Solochenko. As a tourist, "how can I be away from those spots if I'm going to be in the middle of a major event?"
He advises visitors to be aware of their surroundings and if they have any doubts about an activity or a location, "don't do it."
But Solochenko also reports that between his clients here and tour operators in Sochi, "I haven't noticed a panicky mood. Most of the people are very optimistic."