EU-wide sanctions are making it harder for Russians to visit the bloc. Additional visa restrictions mean many Russians are spending their holidays elsewhere.
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,” says Olga Smyschlaeva of Moscow’s Wanderlust Travel Studio. Many bookings were cancelled 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,” says Smyschlaeva.
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 Smyschlaeva.
Turkey remains a hugely popular tourist destination for wealthy Russians, confirms Artur Muradjan 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.
This year Greece and Italy proved especially popular with Russians, says Muradjan. “These are countries that are tolerant towards Russian tourists.” 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 tells DW, adding that trips abroad have become more affordable for Russians since the ruble rebounded, thanks to interventions by the Russian government.
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,” says Muradjan.
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 Sergeyevich 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.
Despite these challenges, wealthy Russians have not given up on Europe completely. Olga Smyschlaeva says 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],” says Smyschlaeva. Many Russians yearned to visit Europe during the COVID-19 pandemic, she adds, saying that they are now making up for lost time, despite the high cost of flight tickets and transfers.
Anastasia Umovskaja of Klutchi, a tourism group, says 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.”
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,” says Smyschlaeva.
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, says Smyschlaeva.