Dacha instead of Dubai: Russia’s tourism industry looks inward

In Russia it’s common to own a dacha — a summer home that can range in size from a small cottage to a large home, often with a fruit and vegetable garden. From Kaliningrad to Vladivostok, historically, many in Russia’s large cities rely on these plots of land in the countryside to get them through food crises and other periods of hardship. During the pandemic lockdowns, many Russians used their dachas as safe havens. Now, they are increasingly being used as vacation homes for many who would have previously traveled abroad.

Since Russia attacked Ukraine on February 24, 2022 Russian tourists have had difficulty traveling outside of their homeland. European skies are currently closed to Russian planes, while Russian airspace does not allow European aircrafts. Many Russian travelers are unable — or unwilling— to take long and expensive detours.

And since Russia was excluded from the international money transfer system SWIFT and Western credit institutions like Visa and Mastercard, Russian tourists can only pay their bills abroad in cash — although some countries are accepting Russia’s homegrown payment system, Mir. In any case, paying for a vacation has become much more difficult.

River cruises in high demand

Those who find their dachas too confining have sought out new domestic vacation destinations. Russia is the largest country in the world in terms of area, and offers plenty of geographic variety. River cruises are an especially popular vacation option at the moment, Anastasia Kisilyova of the St. Petersburg travel agency “Infoflot” tells DW. “We are observing a 40 to 50 percent increase in bookings for the next few months compared to last year.” Kisilyova says this year’s numbers are the highest they’ve been in 15 years. Additionally, 30 percent of all guests have booked a river cruise for the first time.

Cruises around the so-called “Golden Ring” are particularly popular. This tourist route leads through old Russian cities northeast of Moscow. Established between the 11th and 17th centuries, the settlements were the scene of significant events in Russia’s history and have many churches and monasteries that are popular to visit.

Tour guide Anastasia Androsova from the city of Samara on the Volga River is pleased about this. In an interview with DW, she says more and more Russians are discovering their own country. “Even residents of Samara suddenly want to rediscover their own city.” The same is true for Russia’s Black Sea coast in the Krasnodar region, which is usually an in-demand location — although most airports have been closed since the war began.

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The situation is different for travel to Crimea. Up to a third of all hotels and guesthouses will not be able to open in the summer, Russian newspaper Kommersant estimates. Many tourists are not traveling to the Russian-annexed peninsula because its airport was closed after the start of the war and because they are afraid of the war in neighboring Ukraine, according to the Kommersant report.

Fewer Russians take vacations abroad

Prospects are not looking good for Russian tourism abroad. Restricted flights and significantly higher prices have led to a sharp drop in Russian tourists. There were, for example, four times fewer tourists from Russia in Turkey in March, according to the Russian Union of Travel Agencies. This also applies to Russia’s luxury tourists: there were three times fewer five-star hotel and business-class tourists from Russia than last year in March and April.

At the same time, the so-called VIP tourism industry — that which caters to the super rich — has remained stable, Maya Lomidze of the Russian Travel Suppliers Union told Forbes. The number of very wealthy Russians who want to travel abroad for longer periods of time has grown, she said.

With domestic tourism booming and tourism outside of Russia on the decline, parallels have been drawn to 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and the West responded with sanctions. Moscow, in turn, introduced counter-sanctions, which included banning imports of foreign foods such as cheese and apples.

The domestic food industry was thus helped when the Russian government invested in it. Russian consumers initially missed French Camembert, but soon got used to new cheeses produced domestically. Whether this inward orientation can now save the country’s tourism industry remains to be seen. At any rate, traveling to Europe is likely to remain a challenge for most Russian tourists for the foreseeable future.

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Few foreign tourists in Russia

Domestic tourism is booming, but few tourists from abroad are coming to Russia and tourism providers are feeling the effects of this. After the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, there were many cancellations, Marina Levchenko of Tari Tur travel agency told Russian travel news site “Unfortunately, we have to conclude that the summer season is on the verge of collapse,” she told the platform.

After the International Travel Fair in Madrid at the end of January this year, there was still hope for the industry, Levchenko said. “We saw that Europe was reawakening. We also saw interest in Russia” she stated. “Unfortunately, however, politics has put the final nail in the coffin. The summer is going to be hard. It’s just sad.”

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