War no barrier for Russian vacationers

  • 2003-04-03
  • Lucie Godeau

As Western tourists shy away from "risky" destinations such as Turkey and Egypt because of the war in Iraq, Russians are likely to flock there in even greater numbers, attracted by bargain prices.

Turkey, where tourist officials fear that fallout from the conflict in neighboring Iraq may ruin this year's season, is the top destination for Russians, with 686,000 spending their holidays there last year.

"The British and the Germans will be afraid to go to Turkey, which will lower its prices for Russians," Deputy Economy and Commerce Minister Vladimir Strzhalkovsky told a tourist forum in Moscow.

He predicted a slump in domestic tourism. "You can buy a tour to Turkey for as little as $200, and the water is cleaner and the service better than in Sochi, although it costs more there," explained Maxim Shandarov, a journalist for the travel magazine Tourinfo.

In the aftermath of the 1997 massacre in Luxor, in which Muslim militants killed four Egyptians and 58 tourists, Russians rushed to snap up cheap tours to Egypt as foreigners deserted the country in droves.

"Russians were the saviors" of the Egyptian tourist industry, with the numbers of tourists from that country jumping by more than 50 percent annually after the Luxor carnage, said KPM tour operator's director Vladimir Kantorovich.

"Our citizens are strangely immune. They are not afraid of terrorism or war," said a salesperson from travel agents Grineks, which has not seen any drop in bookings for Turkey.

In Egypt, where hotel occupancy rates are reported to have dropped to an average 30 percent from a usual spring average of 80 percent, the some 250,000 Russians who visited the country in 2002 are unlikely to be deterred.

The manager of a four-star hotel at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, complained earlier this month that "almost all Italians, who are our main clients, have left."

But Russians, he said, have remained.

So far, the low living standard of most Russians has limited the market for foreign holidays.

Only 3 percent were able to travel abroad in 2002, making 5 million trips.

But in a sign that Russia is bucking the gloom-and-doom in the world travel industry, a German tour operator, LTU Touristik, has set up shop in Moscow and hopes to serve 45,000 tourists in the coming summer season.

LTU Touristik, which will concentrate on seven countries, including Turkey and Egypt, has joined up with a small Moscow-based charter carrier called Airlines 400.

"The Russian market is very interesting to us from a growth point of view," the tour operator's vice president, Dierck Berlinghoff, told a press conference in Moscow.

The KPM director, whose firm's revenues expanded by 50 percent in 2002, said that Russia itself could benefit from war fears.

"It's in fashion. Suddenly Russia seems safe compared with Muslim countries and the United States, and prices are mainly dollarized, so it's cheap for Europeans" thanks to the strong euro, said Kantorovich.

In the former imperial capital St. Petersburg - foreigners' favorite destination in Russia - "all the hotels have been solidly booked since December" because of the upcoming tricentennial of the city in May, he added.

"War is bad news for everyone, but it could create opportunities for countries like Russia," said Francesco Frangialli, secretary general of the World Tourism Organization, on a visit to Moscow.

Russians' favorite destinations are Turkey, followed by Egypt and Spain.