Cyprus, Turkey and Thailand: top holiday spots feeling the effects of the Ukrainian-Russian war
Russians aren’t the biggest vacation planners, says Mikhail Ilyin, a priest and travel agency owner in Pattaya, Thailand. While most Europeans book a vacation a year or two in advance, Russian tourists tend to be spontaneous.
It’s a generalization, of course, but trends like this feed into national and international travel forecasts. According to Statista, the Russian Federation was among the top 10 countries whose citizens spent the most abroad before the pandemic. Their favorite destinations – including Turkey, Thailand and Cyprus – were no doubt looking forward to a rush of visitors next summer.
As with so many other aspects of life, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine dashed those hopes. Given Russians’ late booking habits, it will be a while before the impact is felt in places like Pattaya, which has been dubbed “the most Russian city in Southeast Asia”.
We spoke to national tourist boards and representatives of tourism sectors dependent on Russia to get a clearer idea of how the conflict could affect travel this summer.
Risks to tourism recovery worldwide
In our global holiday world, not only Russian and Ukrainian tourism networks will be affected.
A strong message from the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) warns: “This is a major regional crisis with potentially catastrophic ramifications around the world. Decisions made in the near future will impact world order and global governance, directly affecting the lives of millions of people.”
The Russian people also face an uncertain future. And despite barriers in the west, they haven’t stopped traveling altogether. On March 4, eight days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Thailand welcomed 454 Russian travelers. This is close to the daily average of 650, according to the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT).
Why do Russians still travel to Thailand?
Father Mikhail Ilyin moved to Pattaya from Estonia in the 1990s and founded Ilves Tours with his Russian wife.
“Pattaya was like a pioneer city for Russian travel,” Ilyin tells us. “Russia didn’t know anything about Thailand for many years except Pattaya.” As the beach town, now more akin to a Bangkok suburb, developed, Phuket overtook it among wealthier Russian travelers.
There are no budget tourists coming to Pattaya now, he explains, but the wealthiest class of Russians – those who “never stop traveling” – are still on the move. Surprisingly, the family business is currently selling more five-star hotel stays than ever. He links the rise to wealthy Russians’ response to the conflict.
“They think, ‘We don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow,'” he says. “They think, let’s enjoy life today. Maybe there will be a nuclear war or maybe Russia will become a closed country like North Korea. Nobody knows. Let’s travel today.”
In his congregation in the Russian Orthodox Church, the tour operator-turned-priest served a mix of expats from Russia, Ukraine and other former Soviet republics. They numbered over 50,000 a decade ago but have since dropped to around 3,000 in the city, he says. Many business owners went home during the Covid slump; some could afford to travel on to Turkey or Spain.
Tourism bosses are planning the “worst case scenario” in Cyprus
Tourism is a vital economic sector in Cyprus, accounting for around 25 percent of GDP. Russians account for 20 percent of all international tourists in the country, the second largest market after Britain.
“It’s a big problem,” Philokypros Roussounides, director general of the Cyprus Hotels Association, told Euronews Travel. The Ministry of Tourism is anticipating the worst-case scenario: the complete loss of around 800,000 tourists from Russia and Ukraine.
Summer bookings typically peak in late May, with over 80 percent being through tour operators. Their absence will not be felt equally if one considers another generalization with which Ilyin and Roussounides agree: Russians tend to return to the same places.
Instead of moving across a country, “people come to a place and try to stay as long as possible,” says Ilyin. “So they choose the hotels that offer them natural beauty and beaches.”
Particularly attractive for tourists are Pattaya in Thailand and the eastern Cypriot resorts of Famagusta and Ayia Napa. Roussounides says: “There are some hotels that are working towards a 100 percent commitment to the Russian market. In these cases, the effect is enormous.”
The hoteliers’ union leader adds that while they are trying to help these establishments nationally, “the EU should support such cases because we also agreed on the sanctions for the Russians”. Among EU countries, tourist arrivals from Russia account for the highest share of all arrivals in the EU’s smallest country, Croatia.
“I wouldn’t say, however, that we’re heading for another catastrophic year,” says Roussounides after the two fallow years of Covid. The sector’s objective is simply to improve on 2021, and with increased connectivity with France, Germany, Poland, Hungary, Austria, Sweden, Switzerland and Israel (among others) he believes they can do that.
However, the double whammy of higher energy costs makes it difficult to attract new tourists with cheaper offers Cyprus has a lot to recommend. And it’s likely restrictions could be eased even further by scrapping the Cyprus flight pass for foreigners and the secure passport currently needed to get into bars and cafes.
Cyprus’ tourism ministry is also considering support for some 2,500 Ukrainians who were “kicked out” from Egyptian hotels and are now seeking refuge in Cypriot shelters.
Flight and payment problems in Turkey and Thailand
A little further north, the seaside resort of Antalya on Turkey’s “Turquoise Coast” is another popular spot for Russia and its neighbors. More than half of the 9 million visitors to the Pine Beach Hotel last year came from Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.
Some Russian tourists are there now, detained by western economic sanctions. Although Turkey has kept flights with Russia open, Turkish low-cost airline Pegasus has suspended flights to the Federation, while Russian Visa and Mastercard bank cards are now unusable abroad.
“We came here to vacation with our children,” Margarita Sabatnikaya, a 31-year-old Russian tourist, told AFP. “Of course, in this situation it is unclear when they will take us back to Russia, what plane we can get back over and it is unclear what awaits us next. we want to stay [here], of course, but it’s a difficult situation, our cards don’t work. It’s unclear how we’re going to stay here and how we’re going to survive.”
Thailand has maintained a neutral stance on the war and has also kept its airspace open. However, the EU ban on Airbus hire meant Russian airlines were forced to cancel many international flights, including all Aeroflot connections to Thailand from March 8. Thousands of tourists have been stranded at Thai resorts as a result.
How are other countries affected?
Tourism-dependent island states like the Maldives are also likely to be severely affected, says the UNWTO. The Russian market in the Seychelles increased from a share of 4.5 to 17 percent in the wake of the pandemic.
Russia’s much-visited neighbors, including Estonia and Finland, are less concerned about summer tourism.
Tourist visas for Russian citizens have been temporarily suspended in Estonia. The Tourist Board explains: “The decision was taken due to technical difficulties in paying visa fees and service fees.” But with Russian tourists being “more moderately represented” in Estonia during the summer season, even in the colorful resort town of Pärnu, the impact is being mitigated.
It is hoped that an influx of other visitors, post-Covid restrictions, will offset this.