Russians Find Favored Holiday Destinations Suddenly Off Limits

Jan 2, 2016

Russians became enthusiastic travelers after the Soviet Union broke up, and two of their most cherished winter getaways were the sunny resorts of Egypt and Turkey.

But those countries are now off-limits, and Russia's sagging economy and sinking currency are also keeping many at home.

Just a year ago, ads for vacation travel packages were everywhere on Russian television.

Antalya, on Turkey's Mediterranean coast, was a favorite spot for Russian tourists, with warm, sandy beaches of a kind that are hard to find in Russia.

But after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane near the Turkey-Syria border in November, Russia banned tourists from traveling there.

Travel to Egypt was also banned, after terrorists blew up a Russian jetliner bringing tourists home from holidays on the Red Sea. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility in that case.

That was a heavy blow for travel agencies, since nearly 3 million Russians visited Egypt just last year, says Andrey Gavrilov, president of the Alliance of Tour Agencies, an industry lobby group.

"Travel agencies tried to suggest different destinations, like [the United] Arab Emirates, like Israel, and other countries," he says.

Russian tourists also looked to resorts further afield, in Southeast Asia, such as Cambodia and Thailand, he adds.

"But for a shorter period of time and maybe a different category of hotels, I mean, four stars instead of five stars, in order to be closer to their budgets," he notes.

The devalued ruble, he says, has raised the cost of overseas travel by more than 30 percent. That makes domestic travel a lot more attractive.

Staying Closer To Home

I went to Moscow's Domodedovo Airport to see where Russians are going to spend their New Year holidays, when much of the country shuts down for more than a week.

A couple of young men with snowboards were checking in for a flight to Sochi, in southern Russia.

Alexander Vasiliyev, 29, said they planned to spend New Year's with friends at the new ski resort built for the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Vasiliyev says they would have gone to Europe, but there's not much snow this year, so Sochi is just as good and, he says, much cheaper.

His buddy Anton Chernoyarov, 28, said they wouldn't go to Turkey on principle; they're patriots and the Turks shot down their plane.

Anna Kravchenko and Denis Belov were traveling on business, but said they're thinking about where to spend their holidays.

"England or Europe," says Belov.

"But it depends on the situation next year," adds Kravchenko.

She's 32 and a homemaker. He's a realtor, age 44.

Turkey and Egypt are not great losses to them, because they've visited each several times.

They've been to Europe, too, during their student days, but they're feeling a certain urgency about going back.

"Europe is changing now, and we don't know how it will be in five years, 10 years," Belov says. "I think Europe will change extremely."

Kravchenko says that's because "we have heard from the friends that the German cities, for example, Frankfurt, it's changing because of people with another culture."

What they're saying reflects what Russians are hearing on state-run television — that Europe is being degraded by the arrival of Muslim refugees.

The official line promoted by Russia's tourism chief, Oleg Safonov, is that foreign beach vacations are alien to Russian tradition.

His assertion proved embarrassing when it emerged that Safonov himself had owned two houses in the Seychelles Islands, a sunny paradise in the Indian Ocean.

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Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now to Russia, where the collapse of the Soviet Union brought Russians the freedom to travel abroad, and in recent years, the prosperity to travel for fun. This holiday season, though, many Russians are foregoing winter getaways. Two of the most popular destinations - Egypt and Turkey - are off-limits. And a sagging economy is also keeping Russians at home. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports on how they're coping.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Just last year, ads for vacation travel packages were everywhere on Russian television.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Speaking Russian).

FLINTOFF: Antalya, on Turkey's Mediterranean coast, was a favorite spot for Russian tourists with warm, sandy beaches of a kind hard to find in Russia. But after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane near the Syrian border in November, Russia banned tourists from traveling there. Travel to Egypt was also banned after terrorists blew up a Russian jetliner, bringing tourists home from holidays on the Red Sea. That was a heavy blow for travel agencies, since nearly 3 million Russians visited Egypt just last year.

ANDREY GAVRILOV: Travel agencies tried to suggest different destinations like Arab Emirates, like Israel.

FLINTOFF: That's Andrey Gavrilov, president of the Alliance of Tour Agencies, an industry lobby group. He says some Russian tourists are heading to Southeast Asia - Cambodia and Thailand.

GAVRILOV: But for shorter period of time and maybe different category of hotels - I mean, four stars instead five stars.

FLINTOFF: The devalued ruble, he says, has raised the cost of overseas travel by more than 30 percent. That makes domestic travel a lot more attractive. I went to Moscow's Domodedovo Airport to see where Russians are going to spend their New Year holidays. A couple of twenty-somethings with snowboards were checking in to a flight to Sochi.

ALEXANDER VASILIYEV: (Speaking Russian).

FLINTOFF: Alexander Vasiliyev planned to spend New Year's with friends at the new ski resorts built for the Winter Olympics. Vasiliyev says they would have gone to Europe but there's not much snow this year, so Sochi is just as good and, he says, much cheaper.

ANTON CHERNOYAROV: (Speaking Russian).

FLINTOFF: His buddy, Anton Chernoyarov, says they wouldn't go to Turkey on principle; they're patriots and the Turks shot down their plane.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Speaking Russian, over PA system).

FLINTOFF: Anna Kravchenko and Denis Belov are traveling on business today, but they're thinking about where to spend their holidays.

DENIS BELOV: England or Europe.

ANNA KRAVCHENKO: But it depends on the situation next year.

FLINTOFF: She's 32 and a homemaker. He's a realtor, age 44. Turkey and Egypt are not great losses to them because they've visited each several times. They've been to Europe, too, during their student days. But they're feeling a certain urgency about going back.

BELOV: Europe is changing now, and we don't know how it will be in 5 years or 10 years. I think Europe will change extremely.

KRAVCHENKO: Because we have heard from the friends that German cities - for example, Frankfurt is very changing because of the people with another culture.

FLINTOFF: What they're saying reflects what Russians are hearing on state-run television - that Europe is being degraded by the arrival of Muslim refugees. The official line promoted by Russia's tourism chief, Oleg Safonov, is that foreign beach vacations are alien to Russian tradition. His assertion proved embarrassing when it emerged that Safonov, himself, had owned two houses on the Seychelles Islands, a sunny paradise in the Indian Ocean. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.