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Russian tourists prefer non-European trips

Juri Rescheto
September 4, 2022

EU-wide sanctions are making it harder for Russians to visit the bloc. Additional visa restrictions mean many Russian travelers are spending their holidays elsewhere.

Beautiful tropical beachfront hotel resort with a swimming pool, sun-loungers, and palm trees.
Luxury holidays are still popular with RussiansImage: Fokke Baarssen/Zoonar/picture alliance

Everything changed on February 24, the day Russia invaded Ukraine. As Russian rockets rained down on Ukraine, international sanctions were quick to follow: The Russian ruble crashed, Russian bank accounts and credit cards were blocked abroad. International travel suddenly became much more complicated for ordinary Russians.

"Interest in travel pretty much evaporated in late February and March — business trips and family visits excluded," said Olga Smyshlyaeva of Moscow's Wanderlust Travel Studio. Many bookings were canceled and holiday plans shelved.

Upmarket destinations popular with wealthy Russians

By May, however, well-to-do Russians were traveling again, chiefly to the Maldives, Mauritius and Turkey. Demand for luxurious getaways was up.

"People got used to the new reality [of Russia at war] and began adapting to it," said Smyshlyaeva.

In mid-May, with just weeks to go until the Russian summer holidays, many began booking high-end hotels abroad, mostly in Turkey. Turkish luxury hotels, and those along the popular Aegean coast, were soon booked out, according to Smyshlyaeva.

A woman sits on a boat
Many well-heeled Russians enjoy spending their holidays in the MaldivesImage: Nikolai Okhitin/Zoonar/picture alliance

Turkey remains a hugely popular tourist destination for wealthy Russians, confirmed Artur Muradian of Space Travel. The same goes for the Maldives. And while direct flights from Russia into the European Union have been suspended, Russians have nevertheless streamed into the bloc.

Ruble rebound

This year, Greece and Italy proved to be especially popular with Russians, said Muradian. "These are countries that are tolerant toward Russian tourists," he said. He expects many of his compatriots will also travel to the United Arab Emirates as well as Southeast Asia this autumn and winter.

"Luckily, there are plenty of flights serving these regions," he told DW, adding that trips abroad have become more affordable for Russians since the ruble rebounded, thanks to interventions by the Russian government.

'Unfriendly states'

Russians are less interested in spending their holidays in Europe for two reasons: the scrapping of direct flights to and from the European Union, and the introduction of sanctions against Russia. "Nobody wants to travel to unfriendly states, because nobody knows if this could be used against them some day," said Muradian. 

A recent EU decision to restrict visa access for Russians will further discourage Russian tourists from visiting the bloc.

Russia deems most EU states "unfriendly countries" for going ahead with anti-Russian sanctions in response to the Ukraine war. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the step was designed to reduce contact with such countries. Designated "unfriendly countries" face limits on hiring local staff to work at their Russian embassies.

Travelers at Helsinki airport.
Scores of Russian tourists have frequented Helsinki airport in recent weeksImage: Micha Korb/pressefoto_korb/picture alliance

Despite these challenges, wealthy Russians have not completely given up on Europe. Olga Smyshlyaeva said her compatriots still enjoy visiting Italy, France and Spain, though getting there now requires a detour via countries like Turkey, Serbia or Finland.

Helsinki airport, for example, is teeming with affluent Russian holidaymakers. The reason is simple: Finland is easy to reach by land from Russia, and from there, direct flights to Europe's various capitals are readily available.

"We have not noticed any Russophobia or prejudices [in Europe]," said Smyshlyaeva. Many Russians yearned to visit Europe during the COVID-19 pandemic, she added, saying they are now making up for lost time despite the high cost of flight tickets and transfers.

Anastasia Umovskaja of Klutchi, a tourism group, said interest in African and Latin American countries is growing as well. She thinks economic reasons explain this shift. "These days, making a detour to fly to Europe is just as expensive as flying to South Africa," she said.

A large yacht pictured in Monaco.
Russia's rich seem to barely be affected by European sanctionsImage: Mischa Keemink/PRO SHOTS/picture alliance

Paying abroad is complicated

What about Russia's ultra-rich? Have their travel preferences changed since the war in Ukraine began? Has it become harder for them to rent yachts and private jets in the West? "Fortunately, we have not observed any such restrictions," said Smyshlyaeva.

Yet the actual question is more about how to pay for such luxuries. Visa and Mastercard suspended their Russian operations soon after war broke out, making payments abroad almost impossible. Bank transactions have also become much more complicated as well, though not impossible, said Smyshlyaeva.

This article was originally published in German

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Juri Rescheto DW Riga Bureau Chief