Once Pent Up, Cash-Rich Russians Trot Globe
This time, the Russians really are coming.
But relax. They are armed with suntan lotion, not AK-47 rifles. They are flying charter planes, not nuclear bombers. And they are headed for nowhere more strategic than the beach.
After 70 years of travel restrictions that kept Soviet citizens behind the Iron Curtain, "the lid has come off the tourism pressure cooker, and it has exploded," in the words of one travel-guide publisher here.
In numbers that have increased every year since communism collapsed in 1991, Russian tourists are fanning out around the globe.
And everywhere, from Thailand to Turkey, they are leaving locals agog at what they spend.
"The trade loves them," says Sylvestre Radegonde, a Seychelles Tourist Authority official. "If you just deliver what they want, no matter what the price, they are no problem at all."
That, perhaps, is to be expected in such an elite destination as the Seychelle Islands, an Indian Ocean paradise where just 2,000 Russians vacationed last year.
Many of them, says Mr. Radegonde, turn their noses up at the direct Aeroflot flight from Moscow, preferring to fly classier Air France, even though it means going through Paris.
And when they get there, he says, "they want the most expensive hotels and they pay cash, out of suitcase-loads of dollars."
But the free-spending syndrome is also true of the hordes who descend on Turkey - the most popular destination for Russian tourists, where 1.6 million Russians chose to spend their holidays last year.
At a hotel near the Turkish resort of Antalya, recalls Vladimir Snegirev, editor of the travel magazine Voyage, "the management told me the Russians spend more money than the Germans, even though they are outnumbered [by the Germans]."
Thirteen million Russians went abroad on vacation last year, according to the government's Committee on Tourism and Sport, in another indication that a middle class with disposable income is emerging as Russia moves toward capitalism.
Many tourists travel on organized 'shopturs,' established for shuttle traders who fly to Istanbul or the United Arab Emirates in order to buy products for resale at home. But more and more people are going abroad as ordinary tourists, looking for ordinary tourist pleasures.
Tempting them with new delights, Moscow's giant international exhibition ground recently held a tourism fair that attracted exhibitors from all over the world. Salespeople hawking Italian spa resorts, Indonesian islands, and Iranian cultural tours stood cheek by jowl among thousands of other tour operators and hoteliers eager to tap this lucrative new market.
SOME Russians choose resorts that were traditional watering holes for their aristocratic forebears before the 1917 Revolution: for example Nice, on the French Cote d'Azure.
"When you are not quite sure who you are because your wealth is new, going to the Cote d'Azure lets you imagine yourself an aristocrat," says Pierre Christian Brochet, publisher of a newly launched Russian series of the French Le Petit Fut travel guides.
Other travelers prefer more exotic spots: More than 100,000 Russians went to Thailand last year, according to official Thai figures, and thousands more, for whom Bangkok is already pass, found their way to Bali.
Just how adventurous these new Russians have become is clear from the pages of Voyage, a glossy local Cond Nast Traveler lookalike that has boomed along with the tourist market.
The latest edition, for example, carries an account of a Voyage correspondent's assault on Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa, and reports from the Caribbean on how to set about diving for treasure.
Mr. Snegirev says he is doing more than feeding armchair fantasies. "Our magazine is successful because it is practical," he says. "We found in a survey that 80 percent of our readership buys Voyage for practical advice on things like how to tip, how to rent a car," and other skills new to former stay-at-home Russians.
Sure enough, the April-May edition of the magazine carries "how-to" articles on a multitude of challenges that might face a Russian going abroad today, from using chopsticks to buying real estate in Miami.
Not long ago, the only Russians who could use this kind of information were the super-rich "New Russians" who had accumulated their wealth in highly questionable ways. The mafia suspicions still hang heavily over Russians abroad, making it difficult, for example, for a Russian to rent a car in London.
But the ranks of Russian travelers have broadened now to include quite legitimate middle-class types.
Traveling is still not easy for Russians - even in the few countries where they do not need visas, they rarely speak the language - but it is getting simpler. More and more countries are losing their fear of the unknown quantity that Russians used to be and easing visa requirements; more and more hotels are hiring Russian speakers to staff the guest relations office.
Why such effort? Because Russia is a juicy market that tourist destinations cannot afford to ignore, as the United Arab Emirates found out.
A few years ago, the big and classy beach hotels refused to take bookings from Russians, afraid of crime and worried that unruly Slavs might bring the tone down. But when hard economic times in Western Europe cut into tourism from traditional countries there, they soon concluded that one man's ruble is as good as another's.
Today the strand just outside Dubai city has a new name, for the new crowd of sunworshippers: Moscow Beach.