Cold Turkey for Russian holidaymakers as geopolitics clip their wings

Cold Turkey for Russian holidaymakers as geopolitics clip their wings
By Jason Corcoran December 2, 2015

Ordinary Russians planning their annual New Year's holiday getaway are resigned to hitting their dachas as a deepening recession stings their wallets and after the Kremlin imposed travel bans to favourite hotspots in Egypt and Turkey.

Russian tour operators were prohibited from selling trips to Turkey and charter flights were grounded between the countries after Ankara shot down a Russian fighter jet on November 24, in what President Vladimir Putin called a Turkish "stab in the back". Flights and tours to Egypt were already suspended  in November after 224 people were killed in the mid-air bombing of a Russian airliner over the Sinai Peninsula. Montenegro, another hotspot for Russian holidaymakers and investors, also now faces "retaliatory measures" after the Adriatic nation was formally invited to join Nato on December 2.

So what now for the sun-starved Russian millions who would flood south every winter for the past two decades, and what of the economies their leisure has propped up? For starters, the word "patriotism" is now cropping up as fast as people's faces are dropping at the prospect of having to return to Soviet-era Crimean holiday haunts.

Oleg Safonov, the head of Russia's Federal Tourism Agency, predicted the number of Russians holidaying abroad will fall by 40% in 2016.  Safonov told reporters big Russian tourism operators with Turkish capital had been working in the interests of Turkey. He said their business focused on "pumping out" money from Russia to Turkey; while tourism operators will now be working in the interests of their homeland.

Russian officials are desperately urging people to holiday in Russia and in Crimea which it annexed from Ukraine last year, but many are not convinced and believe that hotels and service on the Black Sea peninsula are not up to scratch. Crimea is also largely without electricity at the moment after Ukrainian activists downed power lines that supply the region annexed by Russia in March 2014. And it's weather in winter is nothing to travel 1,200km for anyway.

Moscow housewife Nastya Nemirovskaya and her family definitely won't be returning to Crimea after their three-week annual family holiday there in August.

"We decided to skip our annual trip to Turkey in favour of Crimea," Nemirovskaya told bne IntelliNews. "Not out of any real patriotism but more out of curiosity. It may have been cheaper but the service was awful while in Turkey it's really set up to take care of families and the food is wonderful and plentiful. Our medium-priced hotel near Yalta was like stepping back into the Soviet Union in terms of service, attitude and facilities."

Nemirovskaya, her husband Sasha and three children spent their previous summer holiday in the Turkish resort of Antalya, while Nastya has been on holiday in Turkey at least 10 times and to Egypt about half a dozen times in her life.

"I think foreign holidays will be on the back-burner now for several years for many of middle-classes and the lower-earners," she said. "People will have to stay at home at the dacha while the high-rollers will carry on as usual going to their Courchevels and Monacos."

Rival destinations square up

Turkey accounts for a staggering 40% of outbound tourism from Russia so it will be hard to replace overnight. More than 18mn Russians - or about one-eighth of the population - took a foreign holiday in Turkey in 2013, according to government data.

Israel is prepared to step up to help fill the void. Its Tourism Ministry said it is investing $2.6mn on a campaign to woo visitors "in an attempt to create an alternative" for people looking for a sunny holiday.

Tour operators are already biting, even though Israel has been beset by violence of its own in recent months, with 19 Israelis and one US citizen killed in attacks by Palestinians since October 1.

Nord Wind, owned by tour operator Pegas Touristik, has requested and received 56 permits for flights to Tel Aviv from 22 Russian cities, according to RBK Daily newspaper report. Weekly packages staying in a three-star hotel in the Red Sea resort of Eilat for the week starting December 12 start at RUB42,000 ($625), according to Pegas's website.

Pegas is offering similar weekly hotel and flight packages to Thailand starting at RUB58,800 while Goa in India starts at as little as RUB18,000.  Packages to Vietnam start at RUB37,000 for the same week.

Rumours of price-dumping by certain operators are circulating on consumer bulletin boards as some companies are said to be fighting to gain market share.

Vladimir Vorobyov, president of one of Russia's largest travel companies, Natalie Tours, told the Wall Street Journal that following the Sinai crash, half of the 100,000 vacation packages to Egypt had been re-booked for the United Arab Emirates, with around 30% of clients changing their plans for Thailand or Europe instead.

Israel, India and Vietnam seem to be the top replacement picks for Russians in the winter months, while Spain, Greece and Georgia are trying to lure holidaymakers for next summer. Domestically, the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Crimea and the breakaway Georgian republic of Abkhazia are also in the frame and could be more attractive for the budget conscious given the collapse in the ruble against the euro.

While no formal ban has been imposed to stop regular scheduled flights to Turkey, Aeroflot cancelled its flight to Istanbul on December 1 due to a lack of passengers. The few passengers on the 10:20am SU-2137 flight to Ataturk airport were put on the later 2:05pm SU-2131 flight.

Emptied resorts regroup

The disappearance of Russian tourists and sanctions on food exportation may cost the Turkish resort of Antalya alone about $6.5bn in revenue, according to a report by the anti-government newspaper Hurriyet Daily News.

A local politician said Antalya had already lost some 25% of its tourism income over this year due to economic problems in Russia, but the recently erupted crisis would negatively affect the whole country.

Daily Sabah, a pro-government newspaper, argued that Turkey can take measures to minimise the effects of Russian sanctions. The gap created by Russian tourists can be filled by European holidaymakers through visa liberalisation with EU states, the daily reported, citing Mehmet Okumus, chairman of Turkish Movement for Visa-Free Europe.

"With the right marketing tools, we can see a significant increase in tourist numbers in Turkey from EU countries. The gap created by Russian tourists will be filled by European tourists," Okumus said.

Meanwhile, Turkish Tourism Minister Mahir Unal offered a plaintive objection to the Russian sanctions, saying that "tourism should be considered separately from politics", and inviting Russians to visit despite the tensions. "I want to say to the Russian Federation citizens that Turkey is your home," Unal said. "You can spend your holidays safely in Turkey, as you did before."

"We'll be back"

As the stand-off between Moscow and Ankara plays out, the climate won't be helped by Russia's decision to suspend visa-free travel for Turkish citizens from January 1, 2016.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov did not say how long the suspension would last, but was explicit that  Turkey is now seen the source of a "very real threat" of terrorism, no less than Egypt.

Marat Anderzhanov, an engineer from Moscow, is resigned to spending his New Year's holiday at home or at a friend's dacha about 90 kilometres outside the city after cancelling a trip to Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt.

"It looks like we won't get our sun and sea this year but we will be back," Anderzhanov said. "Russians aren't put off easily and a lot of this talk about the Iron Curtain coming down again is just bluster - hopefully!"