Why Russia’s tourism sphere collapsing


Noticeably, Russia’s in-bound and out-bound tourism are collapsing primarily due to the Russia-Ukraine crisis that began February 24, 2022. It was a bit complicated during the previous two years of the coronavirus pandemic that necessitated the closure of borders and air routes. Currently, due to the geopolitical confrontation, Russia appears not as a popular vacation destination and will likely remain so in the coming years.

Long before these two factors – COVID-19 and Russia-Ukraine crisis, Russia moved away from its Soviet-style bureaucracy and red-taped procedures, making it comparatively easier for foreign tourists to visit the country. But now it could be described as a closed country, even the emerging multi-polar order with its basic principles of allowing foreign citizens, including those from the former Soviet republics, for ordinary visits.

Of course, Russia’s officialdom desires to protect its traditional culture, and therefore restricts foreign cultural group performances in Moscow and St. Petersburg as well as other provincial cities in the Russian Federation. At least, before the start of Covid-19 and the political differences with Ukraine, more Russians visited European and American cities than foreigners were allowed to cross into Russia.

Since last year, corporate directors of the hospitality industry have expressed their sentiments on the slow flow of clients, hotels are mostly half-empty and without sustainable tourism benefits. That however, Russian officials unreservedly blamed the collapse of tourism on Western sanctions.

Local Russian media reports highlighted the fact that popular destinations are still threatened by increasing anti-Western and anti-European rhetoric. It further indicated that the number of foreign tourists visiting Russia has drastically reduced especially last year due to the impact of Western sanctions imposed on the country following the ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine.

The Association of Tour Operators of Russia (ATOR) in its latest review report indicated that only 200,100 foreigners visited Russia in 2022. According to the latest report, citing figures from border services, it was a drop of 96.1 percent from pre-pandemic years.

Several reasons were stated in the report. “The reasons are clear: the closed skies between Russia and the vast majority of European countries, as well as the impossibility to use foreign-issued Visa and Mastercard cards in Russia,” ATOR said.

Most of Europe closed its airspace to Russian planes a few days after the Kremlin launched the Ukraine offensive in February 2022. Beginning in March 2022, Russian national carrier Aeroflot suspended its international flights, though it gradually resumed travel to “friendly countries”.

But draconian Covid-related restrictions in China that Beijing only recently abandoned kept Chinese tourists from taking advantage of the situation. Before the pandemic Chinese tourists were the top visitors to Russia, accounting for around 30 percent of the 5.1 million total.

In 2022 only 842 Chinese tourists visited Russia. The number of international tourists in 2022 was even lower than in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, when the country recorded 335,800 and 288,300 visits in 2020 and 2021 respectively.

Tourists from Germany, Turkey and Iran topped the 2022 rankings. Even if 25,400 German tourists visited in 2022, this still represented about 20 times less visitors than in 2019.

Russia has been struggling to fix, at least, its domestic (internal) tourism. Early February, Transportation Minister Vitaly Savelyev said at a meeting on developing domestic tourism with President Vladimir Putin that his ministry plans to boost the services of Russian airlines with incentives for more potential passengers in 2023.

The aim, he noted, is raise the total volume of traffic and that could be adjusted slightly when accounting for an extended closure of the 11 airports in southern Russia. Savelyev said that airline passenger traffic exceeded 95 million travelers in 2022. As such, the ministry expects the indicator to grow 6% this year.

But the Federal Security Service (FSB)’s Border Service additionally explained in its statistical report that approximately 200,000 foreign tourists visited Russia in 2022, down 28.8% from the previous year.

Most of the tourists came from Germany (25,300, or 33.4% fewer than the year before), followed by Turkey with 22,600 tourists (down 2.5%) and Iran with 14,600 tourists, up 25 times from 2021.

Also in the top five are Kazakhstan (13,270 tourists) and Cuba (11,300). They are followed by Uzbekistan (8,860), Kyrgyzstan (6,600), India (6,400), the United States (5,580) and Armenia (5,200). In addition, Israel, Latvia, the United Arab Emirates, Serbia, Azerbaijan, South Korea, Turkmenistan, Italy, France and Lithuania are in the top 20.

Inbound tourism in Russia drastically fell amid the coronavirus pandemic. The border closure in 2020 cut tourist arrivals 93%, compared to 2019 when Russia was visited by over 5 million foreign tourists. There were 288,000 foreign tourist arrivals in Russia in 2021, or 14% less than in 2020.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Ma Zhaoxu called for an early resumption of tourist trips between the two countries at a meeting in Moscow early February, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

“Given the lifting of coronavirus restrictions, the parties expressed the common view that it would be reasonable to restore people-to-people contact and tourist trips between our countries,” the statement reads.

In order to save the industry, President Vladimir Putin held a meeting with cabinet members on January 24. The Kremlin said that development of domestic tourism in 2023 was the key topic of the meeting agenda. Minister of Economic Development Maxim Reshetnikov, Minister of Transport Vitaly Savelyev and Minister of Natural Resources Alexander Kozlov participated with reports.

There are external Asian countries such as Thailand, The Philippines, India and Vietnam ready to promote tourism. The United States and Europe are relatively closed to Russians.

Judging from above, it is unlikely Russia’s inbound and outbound tourism will soon witness significant improvement. Generally, Russians have to change attitudes to be more interactive, simplify travel rules and regulations for visiting the country. Russia has divided the world into two: “friendly” and “non-friendly” countries.

Industry experts suggested that Russian officials have to acknowledge the fact that travel and tourism connect people and bring the world closer through shared experiences, cultural awareness and community building. It provides jobs, spurs regional development, and is a key driver for socio-economic progress. Without these, Russia, of course, has the sovereign right to choose between the emerging multi-polar and an isolated world.

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