Connect to share and comment

Flight cancellations hurt flower industry from Amsterdam to Africa

Millions of tulips and other flowers are being tossed in the trash as the volcanic ash shuts down flights.

A tulip garden in front of the National Theatre building in Zagreb, Croatia, May 2, 2008. Millions of tulips and other blooms have been grounded as the volcanic ash cancels flights across Europe. (Nikola Solic/Reuters)

BRUSSELS, Belgium — “When it’s spring again, I’ll bring again, tulips from Amsterdam …” except, that is, when a giant cloud of volcanic dust shuts down Europe’s air space.

Dutch flower traders have been among the companies hardest hit by the flight ban across Europe that has blocked the export routes of their highly perishable products.

Millions of tulips and other blooms that, at this time of the year, would normally be winging their way across the Atlantic from the flowerbeds of Holland have been grounded. Exporters have being forced to throw them in the trash.

“This is the time of all the spring flowers, so it’s affecting us even more than 9/11 did,” said Paul Hoogenboom, managing director of Holex Flower, the leading Dutch air freighter of cut flowers.

“At that time [after 9/11] we could not ship flowers for a week, but that was not the busy time of the year of us, so this is twice or three times as bad,” Hoogenboom said in a telephone interview.

It’s not only Dutch exporters whose trade is wilting under the fallout from the Icelandic volcano. Blooms from around the world are bought and sold in the vast international market at Aalsmeer and smaller auction houses around the Netherlands that serve as the sector’s international hub.

East African nations have been hit particularly hard. In Kenya, thousands of workers in the horticultural sector are being laid off and tons of flowers destroyed. That is a severe blow to a country where the flower sales are the second biggest foreign exchange earner after tea, bringing in a much-needed $500 million a year to the economy and employing up to 60,000 people.

(Read about how Kenya is coping as flowers wilt and fruits and vegetables rot.)

The Kenyan flower industry estimates it’s already had to dump 3,000 tons of roses and other blossoms due to the closure of its biggest markets in Europe.

“We have handled drought, El Nino and the post-election violence, but we have not seen anything like this,” Stephen Mbitihi, chief executive of the French Produce Exporters Association of Kenya, told the Daily Nation newspaper in Nairobi.

Almost 70 percent of Kenya’s flower exports pass through the Dutch flower exchanges on their way to markets across Europe and beyond.

“Today was the first auction where we could see the effect of the volcano and the ash in the air on our business,” said Marcel Claessen, managing director of the Aalsmeer market, the world’s second largest building.

He said volume was down by between 15 and 20 percent on Monday as the flight ban chokes off the supply of flowers imported from outside Europe.