One million Russian tourists went on holiday to the EU this year, but are things about to change?

One million Russian tourists went on holiday to the EU this year, but are things about to change?

One million Russian tourists went on holiday to the EU this year, but are things about to change?

tourism 2022, Russian tourism, travel - Shutterstock

tourism 2022, Russian tourism, travel – Shutterstock

Last week, after quite a bit of handshaking, the foreign ministers of the 27 EU states gathered in Prague and promised to do … not much, actually, on one of the secondary issues of a turbulent year: Russian tourists and whether they should be allowed to travel to their favorite parts of the continent when their president waged a bloody war against their neighbor for six months.

No means perhaps

It’s an issue that appeared to have been settled by default in late February when, in response to the invasion of Ukraine, the EU and the UK – along with Switzerland, the US and Canada – closed their airspace to Russia-registered aircraft. Suddenly, vacationers from the largest country on the planet were actually sent to their room. With Russian flights banned from landing in Barcelona, ​​Geneva, Athens and others, there would be no Muscovites on the Costa Brava, no Yekaterinburg bronzers on the shores of the Greek Aegean, no St. Petersburg skier in the Alps. Net it means net.

Travel to Russia, tourism 2022 - Getty

Travel to Russia, tourism 2022 – Getty

Except that the situation did not go that way. While air bridges between major Russian cities and their European counterparts have been broken for now, nearly one million Russian tourists have entered the EU since the outbreak of the war.

Most of them arrived by land, crossing a country with a shared border, such as Finland or Estonia, and then continuing the journey by plane. Hence the angry comments by Danish Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod about Russian vacationers “living in luxury” in southern European hotels as Ukrainian cities burn. And the recent declaration by Kaja Kallas, the Estonian prime minister, according to which the EU should “stop issuing tourist visas to Russians” because “visiting Europe is a privilege, not a human right”. “While the Schengen countries issue visas”, he added, “Russia’s neighbors (Finland, Estonia, Latvia) bear the burden. It’s time to end tourism from Russia now. ”His words were echoed by officials in Latvia, Lithuania, Denmark, Finland and Poland.

Red ribbon

Last week’s pow-wow in the Czech capital will do little to resolve the issue. In theory, the 27 countries have agreed to suspend a 2007 deal with Russia that makes less bureaucracy and easier travel in both directions. All of this actually means that it is now more complicated for Russian citizens to apply for European visas. The announcement definitely stops before a ban. It is also unclear when the suspension will go into effect, and even when it will, it will not affect the 12 million visas for Russians already in play.

Of course, for all that a million or so Russians have slipped into Europe since the invasion, that statistic is nothing compared to the numbers of previous years. In practice, the Russian vacationer is already disqualified. And the consequences are already being felt.

Currency questions

Vladimir Putin’s violent crossing of the Rubicon on February 24 changed everything. Before the war, the Russian population was one of the most important economic cogs in the relentless rotations of the global travel industry, and not just the infamous example of the country’s super rich and their giant yachts, diving into Mediterranean ports.

For much of the past two decades, Russian tourists have been increasingly mobile and in increasing numbers. They made about 40 million trips abroad in each of the three years leading up to the pandemic and left a lot of money in the process. A study published by Visa in 2018 found that Russians spend an average of $ 1,676 (£ 1,266) apiece on each holiday abroad. Once the dominant currency in the world of the Iron Curtain, the ruble has found its way to Italian beaches, Spanish bars, the best French restaurants.

Or, at least, it I had. With Russian tanks rolling on Ukrainian soil, this rich seasonal diaspora has largely evaporated. And international sanctions have quickly gutted that fabulous purchasing power, increasing the value of Russian cash. On January 1, there were 101 rubles for the British pound, 75 for the US dollar, 84 for the euro. By the second week of March, there were 169 for the pound, 128 for the dollar, and 139 for the euro. That dip has since been (more than) reversed: here in early September, there are 70 rubles per pound, 60 per dollar and 60 per euro. But Russia’s exclusion from SWIFT international banking on March 2 means that Yekaterinburg and Volgograd residents who have money to spare cannot easily spend it across their borders.

Gaps in the market

Their absence has left inevitable gaps. The Trois Vallées slopes in France (Meribel, Courchevel, Val Thorens et al) were the most popular European destination for Russian skiers in the last season before the pandemic (2018-2019), attracting 140,000 visitors from the land of Chekhov and Tchaikovsky – lots of super sophisticated chalets and high-end cuisine, plus the thrill of sliding downhill. The adjacent Paradiski area (Les Arcs, La Plagne and Peisey-Vallandry) attracted 40,000 Russians in the same winter.

Ski Holidays in Courchevel - Getty

Ski Holidays in Courchevel – Getty

The French neighbor also lost his pockets. Spain woke up early to the rise of the Russian traveler, trading heavily in Moscow as soon as the Soviet Union fell apart (in 1991). The number of Russian arrivals exceeded one million for the first time in 2012 (1.2 million). More than half of those tourists went to Catalonia, tempted by the Barcelona skyline and the beaches on either side.

They have also found their way to other areas of the Mediterranean. Crete, Rhodes and Corfu are the three Greek islands most loved by Russian tourists. Russian tour operators saw a 38% increase in demand for Greece in 2017 (compared to 2016), as their customers were looking for affordable packages and reliable weather conditions. Italy also tops the wish list, welcoming 1.2 million Russians in 2018 and 1.4 million in 2019. According to Russian Travel Digest, a publication covering the Russian travel industry in detail, Rimini is the most popular resort, because its sandy coast is also convenient for Venice and the Tuscan hills.

Tragedy in numbers

The empty chair at the table where the Russians sat was distinguishable even further away. Data from the Russian Federal Statistical Service (Rosstat) shows that those 40 million pre-pandemic overseas holidays can be broken down into several brackets, but it also shows that Russian travelers have a remarkably stable set of favorites. The lists of the 10 most popular countries in 2018 and 2019 were almost identical, the only difference in the latter being the marginal displacement of Georgia and Italy of Poland and the UAE.

For the most part, the Russian tourist’s favorite destinations can be divided into four clear categories: the old Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc (Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Estonia, Georgia, Germany, Poland), immediate neighbors (Finland, China) , guaranteed hot sunspots (Turkey, Thailand, United Arab Emirates) and classic sunspots in southern Europe (Italy, Spain). The biggest tragedy in these numbers is the high-level presence of Ukraine, the fifth most common choice for the Russian tourist in 2019, the fourth in 2018. Approximately 2.1 million vacations were taken each year; many of them in Odessa, the Ukrainian town on the Black Sea that holds a special place in the heart of Russia, but has been in the sights ever since.

Turkey on a tightrope

Then there is Turkey, by far the most regular playground for Russian vacationers. In 2018 there were 4.5 million visits, mostly to its Mediterranean locations, such as Antalya, Olu Deniz and Fethiye, but also to Istanbul; 5.3 million in 2019. Ankara understands this very well. Since February it has been an outrider among countries within or on the fringes of Europe, as it has not closed its airspace to Russian aircraft. Earlier last month, it went further. On August 6, President Recep Erdogan returned from a summit with Putin in Russia’s main Black Sea port, Sochi, to declare that five Turkish banks have agreed to adopt MIR, Russia’s electronic payment system.

This will benefit both incoming tourists and nervous guests. In March, there was palpable panic in Turkey at the prospect of the disappearance of the Russian market. Interviewed by Agence France-PresseIsmail Yitmen – a travel agent with an office opposite the Hagia Sophia mosque in Istanbul – said he was already fighting the cost of Russia’s isolation. “A group had to arrive in Turkey in two months,” he revealed. “But we didn’t get the money, so it was canceled. It’s because they stopped SWIFT transfers. ”The move to MIR won’t bring back the € 11,000 Yitmen claims he lost on those spring bookings, but now it means Russians can use their credit cards in Turkey.

And Turkey has reaped the reward. Partly thanks to his willingness to play well, he welcomed a good number of Russians this summer. Not at usual levels: The ripples of the crisis and the prospect of beachfront business have seen German tourists replace their Russian counterparts as the number one nationality on the Turkish Riviera this year, with a total of three million expected to be reached by November. But even if the Russian contingent is smaller – two million would be a roughly 50% reduction in the statistic for the pandemic-affected 2021 – it is still a figure that Turkey will gratefully squeeze.

The “worst” tourists in Europe

Of course, not everyone is short of Russians, and some might even say they are pleased to see the back of a demographic that has often been criticized for its rudeness. In 2019, YouGov conducted extensive research on European views of holidaymakers from other parts of the continent, asking people from 26 countries to name the nationality they least like to meet during their 15-day absence. The Russians were listed as the worst tourists from Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland and were little appreciated by the Germans.

Sure, such polls will always be rooted in a certain amount of bias, mixed with a hefty pinch or two of cultural misunderstanding (it’s worth noting that Germany listed the British as the least loved travel demographic; a position that has been revived by the Spaniards and, in a moment of self-irony, the English themselves). However, in the current context, the rough reputation of the Russian tourist is unlikely to improve.

Twin knights

Really, though, we could all get lost. In March, Remco Steenbergen, Lufthansa’s chief financial officer, said the German flag carrier would have to raise prices to offset the financial side effects of the conflict, explaining that the additional cost of flying to Russia (and Ukrainian) airspace to the Far East it would add at least € 1 million in overheads per month. Since then, inflation has soared and the cost-of-living crisis has bitten, these twin knights stirring to the rhythm of a war that shows no sign of ending. Ultimately, the fate of the Russian tourist is the least of the world’s problems.

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