Russians aren’t the greatest vacation planners, says Mikhail Ilyin, a priest and tour operator in Pattaya, Thailand. While most Europeans book their holidays a year or two in advance, Russian tourists tend to be more spontaneous.
This is of course a generalization, but trends like these fuel domestic and international travel forecasts. The Russian Federation was in the top 10 countries whose citizens spent the most abroad before the pandemic, according to Statista. Their favorite destinations – including Turkey, Thailand and Cyprus – were no doubt eagerly awaiting an influx of visitors this summer.
As with so many other aspects of life, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine ended those hopes. Given Russians’ late-booking habits, it will take some time before the impact is felt in places like Pattaya, which has been dubbed “the most Russian city in Southeast Asia.”
We spoke to national tourism boards and those in Russian-dependent tourism sectors to get a clearer idea of the potential impact of the conflict on travel this summer.
Risks for the recovery of tourism in the world
In our globalized vacation world, it is not only the Russian and Ukrainian tourism networks that will be affected.
An unequivocal message from the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) warns that “this is a major regional crisis with potentially disastrous implications worldwide. Decisions made in the near future will impact the world order and global governance, and will directly affect the lives of millions of people.
The Russian people also face an uncertain future. And despite the barriers to the west, they did not completely stop traveling. On March 4, 8 days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Thailand welcomed 454 Russian travelers. This is close to the daily average of 650 according to the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT).
Why do Russians always travel to Thailand?
Priest Mikhail Ilyin moved from Estonia to Pattaya in the 90s and founded Ilves tours with his Russian wife.
“Pattaya was like a pioneer city for Russian travel,” Ilyin tells us. “For many years, Russia knew nothing about Thailand except Pattaya.” As the beach town has grown – now looking more like a Bangkok neighborhood – Phuket has overtaken it in popularity with more affluent Russian travellers.
There aren’t more budget tourists coming to Pattaya now, he explains, but the wealthiest class of Russians – those “who will never stop travelling” – are still on the move. Surprisingly, the family business is currently selling more five-star hotel stays than ever before. He links the rise to wealthy Russians’ response to the conflict.
“They think ‘we don’t know what will happen tomorrow’,” he said. “They think we’re going to enjoy life today. Maybe there will be a nuclear war or maybe Russia will become a closed country like North Korea. Nobody knows. Let’s travel today.
In his congregation at the Russian Orthodox Church, the tour operator-turned-priest looks after a mix of expats from Russia, Ukraine and other former Soviet republics. They numbered more than 50,000 a decade ago, but have since fallen to around 3,000 in the city, he says. Many business owners have gone home during the Covid crisis; some could afford to go to Turkey or Spain.
Tourism bosses consider ‘worst-case scenario’ in Cyprus
Tourism is a vital economic sector in Cyprus, accounting for approximately 25% of GDP. Russians make up 20% of all international tourists to the country, the second largest market after the UK.
“It’s a big problem,” director general of the Cyprus Hotel Association Philokypros Roussounides told Euronews Travel. The Ministry of Tourism is considering the worst scenario: the total loss of some 800,000 Russian and Ukrainian tourists.
Summer bookings typically peak in late May, with over 80% made through tour operators. Their absence will not be felt in the same way, given another generality on which Ilyin and Roussounides agree: Russians tend to return to the same places.
Rather than moving to a country, people “come to a place and try to stay as long as possible,” says Ilyin. “That’s why 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: “Some hotels are working on a 100% commitment with the Russian market. In these cases, the impact is enormous.
The boss of the hoteliers’ union adds that, while they try to help these companies at the national level, “the EU should support such cases based on the fact that we have also agreed the sanctions for the Russians”. Among EU countries, tourist arrivals from Russia account for the highest share of all arrivals in the bloc’s smallest country, Croatia.
“However, I wouldn’t say we’re heading for another disastrous year again,” Roussounides says, after the two years of Covid fallow. The sector’s objective is simply to improve compared to 2021, and with increased connectivity with France, Germany, Poland, Hungary, Austria, Sweden, Switzerland and Israel (among others) , he thinks he can do it.
The double whammy of higher energy costs makes it difficult to attract new tourists with cheaper deals, but Cyprus has a lot to recommend. And it’s likely restrictions could be eased further, scrapping the Cyprus Flight Pass for foreigners and the secure pass currently required to enter bars and cafes.
The Cypriot Ministry of Tourism also takes into account the support of around 2,500 Ukrainians, who have been “evicted” from Egyptian hotels and are now taking refuge in Cypriot accommodation.
Plane and payment problems in Turkey and Thailand
A little further north, the resort town of Antalya on Turkey’s “Turquoise Coast” is another location favored by Russia and its neighbors. More than half of Pine Beach Hotel’s 9 million visitors came from Russia, Ukraine and Belarus last year.
Some Russian tourists are now there, held back by Western economic sanctions. Although Turkey has kept flights open with Russia, Turkish low-cost airline Pegasus has suspended flights to the Federation, while Russian Visa and Mastercard bank cards are now unusable abroad.
“We came here for a vacation with our children,” Margarita Sabatnikaya, a 31-year-old Russian tourist, told AFP. “Of course, with this situation, we don’t know when they will take us back to Russia, which plane we can pick up by and we don’t know what to expect next. We want to stay [here], of course, but it’s a difficult situation, our cards don’t work. We don’t know how we will stay here and how we can survive.”
Thailand maintained a neutral stance on the war and also kept its airspace open. But the EU’s ban on Airbus rentals has forced Russian airlines to cancel many international flights, including all Aeroflot services to Thailand from March 8. As a result, thousands of tourists have found themselves stranded in Thai resorts.
How are other countries affected?
Tourism-dependent island nations like the Maldives are also expected to be badly affected, according to the UNWTO. The Russian market in Seychelles has grown from 4.5% to 17% as a result 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 Board explains that “the decision was made due to technical difficulties in paying visa fees and service charges”. But as Russian tourists are “more moderately represented” in Estonia during the summer season, even in the colorful resort town of Pärnu, the impact will be muted.
It is hoped that an influx of other visitors, post-Covid restrictions, will compensate.