Russians aren’t the biggest vacation organizers, says Mikhail Ilyin, a cleric and travel agency owner in Pattaya, Thailand. While most Europeans book their holidays a year or two in advance, Russian tourists tend to be spontaneous.
This is a generalization, of course, but trends like these fuel national and international travel forecasts. According to Statista, the Russian Federation was among the ten countries whose citizens traveled the most abroad before the pandemic. Their favorite travel destinations – including Turkey, Thailand and Cyprus – were looking forward to receiving an influx of visitors in the summer.
As with so many other aspects of life, the Russian invasion of Ukraine also disappointed these hopes. Given the late booking habits of Russians, it will take some time for the impact to be felt in places like Pattaya, which has also been dubbed “the most Russian city in Southeast Asia”.
After discussions with national tourism authorities and Russia-dependent tourism sectors, it is becoming clearer how the conflict could affect travel behavior this summer.
Risks for the recovery of world tourism
In our globally interconnected vacation world, not only Russian and Ukrainian tourism networks are concerned.
The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) warns: “This is a serious regional crisis with potentially catastrophic consequences for the whole world. Decisions made in the near future will have an impact on world order and global governance and life. of millions of people directly influence “.
The Russian population also faces an uncertain future. And despite the (travel) obstacles to the west, they haven’t given up on travel entirely. On March 4, eight days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Thailand welcomed 454 tourists from Russia. According to the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), this is nearly the daily average of 650 Russian arrivals.
Why do Russians still go to Thailand?
Priest Mikhail Ilyin moved to Pattaya from Estonia in the 1990s and founded Ilves Tours with his Russian wife.
“Pattaya was something of a pioneer city for Russian travelers,” says Ilyin. “For many years, Russia knew nothing about Thailand except Pattaya.” With the development of the beach town – it now looks more like a suburb of Bangkok – it has been overtaken by Phuket in popularity among wealthier Russian tourists.
No cheap tourists come to Pattaya today, he explains, but the richest class of Russians – the ones “who will never stop traveling” – are still on the move. Surprisingly, the family business is currently selling more five-star hotel stays than ever. He links the recovery to the attitudes of wealthy Russians towards the conflict.
“They think, ‘We don’t know what tomorrow will bring,’ he says.” They think, ‘We should enjoy life today. Maybe there will be a nuclear war, maybe Russia will become an isolated country like North Korea. Nobody knows. So now we have to travel ‘”.
In his congregation of the Russian Orthodox Church, the priest cares for various groups of emigrants from Russia, Ukraine and other former Soviet republics. Ten years ago there were still more than 50,000 people in the city, but now it’s only about 3,000. Many entrepreneurs returned during the Covid crisis; some could afford to move to Turkey or Spain.
The tourism industry predicts the “worst case” in Cyprus
Tourism is an important industry in Cyprus, accounting for around 25% of the gross domestic product. Travelers from Russia account for 20% of all international tourists in the country, the second largest market after Britain.
“It’s a big deal,” Philokypros Roussounides, general manager of the Cyprus Hotel Association, told Euronews Travel. The tourism ministry is preparing for the worst-case scenario: the complete loss of around 800,000 tourists from Russia and Ukraine.
Summer bookings typically peak in May, with over 80% coming from tour operators. Their absence will not be felt everywhere, because there is another generalization that Ilyin and Roussounides agree on: Russians tend to return to the same places.
Instead of moving to a country, “people come to one place and try to stay as long as possible,” says Ilyin. “So they choose hotels that offer them natural beauty and beaches.”
Pattaya in Thailand and the eastern Cypriot resorts of Famagusta and Ayia Napa are particularly attractive to tourists. Roussounides says: “There are some hotels that are 100 percent committed to the Russian market. In these cases, the impact is huge.”
The union leader of the hoteliers adds that while they try to support these companies at the national level, he adds that the EU should also support such cases “because we have agreed sanctions also against the Russians”. In the EU, most Russian tourists visit Croatia: they represent the largest share of vacationers.
“I don’t think we’re heading into a catastrophic year again,” says Roussounides after two years of the pandemic. The goal for 2021 is to get better in 2022 and thanks to better cooperation with France, Germany, Poland, Hungary, Austria, Sweden, Switzerland and Israel (among others) he believes he can achieve it.
Higher energy costs make it difficult to attract new tourists with cheaper offers, but Cyprus has a lot to offer. And restrictions are likely to be eased further by eliminating the Cyprus Tourist Flight Pass and Health Pass, which is currently required to enter bars and cafes.
The Cyprus Ministry of Tourism is also considering supporting some 2,500 Ukrainians who have been “kicked out” of Egyptian hotels and are now residing in Cypriot shelters.
Flight and payment problems in Turkey and Thailand
A little further north, the seaside resort of Antalya on the Turkish coast is another favorite spot for Russia and its neighbors. More than half of the Pine Beach Hotel’s 9 million visitors last year came from Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.
Some Russian tourists are there now because they are blocked by Western economic sanctions. Although Turkey continues to fly to Russia, Turkish low-cost airline Pegasus has suspended flights to the Federation, while Russian Visa and Mastercard bank cards can no longer be used abroad.
“We came here on vacation with our children,” Margarita Sabatnikaya, a 31-year-old Russian tourist, told AFP. “In this situation, of course, it is not clear when they will send us back to Russia, on which plane we can return, and it is not clear what awaits us next. Obviously we want [hier] remains, but it is a difficult situation, our bank cards do not work. It is not clear how we can stay here and how we can survive. “
Thailand took a neutral stance on the war in Ukraine and also kept its airspace open. However, the EU ban on the leasing of Airbus aircraft has forced Russian airlines to cancel numerous international flights, including all Aeroflot flights to Thailand since 8 March. Thousands of tourists have therefore been stranded in Thai holiday resorts.
Which other countries are affected and to what extent?
Tourism-dependent island nations, such as the Maldives, will also be severely affected, according to the UNWTO. The share of the Russian market in the Seychelles increased from 4.5 to 17 percent in the wake of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, Russia’s heavily visited neighbors, including Estonia and Finland, are less concerned about summer tourism.
Tourist visas for Russian citizens have been temporarily suspended in Estonia. The Tourist Office explains: “The decision was made due to technical difficulties in paying visa fees and services”. However, since Russian tourists are “fairly moderately represented” in Estonia during the summer season, even in the colorful holiday town of Pärnu, the consequences will not be felt as strongly.
Hopefully, the influx of more visitors will compensate after two years of pandemic-related restrictions.