May 1 marks the official opening of the spa season in Czech Republic’s iconic Carlsbad, or Karlovy Vary in Czech, and the start of the high season. But the legendary town is already awash with tourists, almost all from Russia.
The streets are clogged with Russian tourists who have come to take the waters, along with a smattering of Chinese and the odd bus load of Germans. Russian is spoken everywhere in shops and restaurants. Many of the hotels cater exclusively to Russian clients, where a week in a spa, or sanatorii in Russian, was considered a luxury get-away in Soviet times. Today, the Russians have adopted Carlsbad as their spa destination of choice.
The city echoes its heyday at the end of the nineteenth century when it was a de rigueur destination for the belle monde of the belle epoque. Memorials on the walls of the Jugendstil houses attest to their famous occupants and the influence of the dying days of the Hapsburg empire. Kemel Attaturk, the founder of the modern Turkish state, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Goethe and even Russia’s Peter the Great are amongst the luminaries that spent time in Carlsbad. And they are still coming: Carlsbad is home to a famous film festival and the local restaurants are decorated with photos of their respective owners clutching Hollywood stars like Robert de Niro or Woody Harrelson, as well as their peers from the east such as Russian singing mega-stars Ioseph Kobzon and Alla Pugacheva.
As the crisis in Russia starts to recede Russians are going on holiday again, although the impact of the collapse of the ruble and the sanctions imposed following the Kremlin’s annexation of the Crimea in 2014 has been bad for business.
“That [expletive] Obama has wrecked the economies of Central Europe,” says Martin Kovak, the owner of the serviced apartment we stayed in. “The Russians have come back, but they are spending a lot less.”
Russian tourists are returning to Europe as the number of requests for tours to EU countries increased by 61% in the first quarter of this year, the Association of Tour Operators of Russia (ATOR) reported recently, as the average number of early bookings grew by 30%, the general director of the tourist compamu Vipservis Dmitry Gorin said in a recent interview. Demand for flights to Europe in just March 2017 grew by 15% year-on-year, added the director of development OneTwoTrip Arkady Guinness.
The mass market is still concentrated on Turkey where Russian tourist numbers are back to pre-dispute levels. Russia basically banned holidays in Turkey after it shot down a Russian bomber on the Turkish border in November 2015, but has dropped the sanctions recently after Turkey apologised and relations began to warm again.
According to the Antalya Airport, 24,314 Russian tourists visited the resort in March. This is only 2.7% less than in the pre-crisis 2014, statistics show. Antalya Airport beach resorts accounted for about 85% of the organised tourist flow from Russia to Turkey, which remains head and shoulders above its rivals (partly due to the fact that Russians don’t need a visa to visit Turkey).
The clientele in Carlsbad is slightly more upmarket. Certainly they are a lot older as the stereotypical babushki are everywhere, clutching small porcelain cups with a teapot spout and sipping the resorts famous mineral water that bubbles up from numerous springs dotted around the main promenade.
Russians have invested heavily in the resort. There is even a branch of Sberbank prominently placed at the heart of the pedestrian zone at the north end of the town. And many of the hotels have focused their pitch entirely on the Russian market with signs and advertisements entirely in Russian.
Indeed, if you don’t speak Czech then the usual “do you speak English” gets you nowhere. Even German elicits half–hearted answers, whereas “Vy govoritye po russki?” is unversally understood.
However, the locals seem to have a love-hate relation with their customers. “You know not everyone here likes the Russians. But what can you do? They have money and they like to spend it, even if they are spending less than they used to now after the crisis,” says Kovak.
The point was brought home to my Russian-speaking German wife in a shoe shop.
“Do you have this shoe in size 38?” my wife asked a shop attendant on the main drag.
“Are you Russian?” the assistant asked.
“No. German,” she replied.
“Well then don’t bother. You won’t buy it. It’s far too expensive. Only the Russians buy shoes in here.”