Who’s itching to visit Russia right now? Anybody?
Less than nine months after the Sochi Winter Olympics -- which were supposed to usher in a new era of tourism for that region and Russia as a whole -- the flow of Americans and other foreigners is slowing, not quickening. In some cases, tour operators say, their customers are traveling instead to breakaway countries that were once part of the Soviet Union.
The reasons for Russia’s unpopularity here are no great mystery. Within days of the end of the Olympics (Feb. 7-23), Russia had taken first steps toward annexation of Crimea. Saber-rattling has continued along the Ukraine border, prompting objections from the United Nations and economic sanctions by the U.S. and many countries in western Europe. In July came the mysterious downing of a Malaysian passenger jet over the Russia-Ukraine border.
Meanwhile, as Russia-Ukraine hostilities simmer, civil-rights advocates denounce Russia’s widely criticized treatment of homosexuals. The most recent headlines came in early November, when, after Apple CEO Tim Cook came out as gay, authorities removed a memorial to Apple founder Steve Jobs from a St. Petersburg college campus.
An October study by the European Travel Commission, “European Tourism amid the Crimea Crisis,” found that Russia’s international arrivals grew by 10.2% in 2012, 13.5% in 2013; and then, in the first half of 2014, just 1.8%. From April through June of this year, the report found, international tourist spending in Russia was down 15.2% from the year before. The report also cited a 12% drop in Russian hotel occupancy in the first eight months of this year.
At Seattle-based Mir Corp., which specializes in cultural travel to the crossroads of European and Asia, owner Douglas Grimes said this year he’s had more cancellations on Russia than usual, including some travelers who said “we don’t want to financially support Russia.”
Grimes said he expects to send 55 group trips to Russia this year, down from 59 last year after several years of steady growth. Fortunately, Grimes said, he has seen a surge of interest in Iran, along with Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and other countries that broke away in the collapse of the Soviet Empire.
Whatever momentum Russia had from the Olympics “just got completely lost in all the problems with Ukraine,” Grimes said. “And I don’t think it’s gotten any better.”
At Distant Horizons in Long Beach, a tour company that specializes in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, owner Janet Moore said 2014 will probably be the first year in a decade that she hasn’t sent a single traveler to Russia.
“There’s interest in former Soviet Union countries like Uzbekistan or Azerbaijan,” said Moore. As for Russia, she blamed “a cocktail of circumstances that have left people not wanting to go there. We send more people to Iran than there.”
At Connecticut-based Tauck, which runs tours worldwide, corporate communications manager Tom Armstrong reported “mixed results” from Russia this year and “some softness” in bookings on the company’s two 2015 itineraries that include Russia.
At Uniworld, a Los Angeles-based river cruise company that has had four years of success in selling itineraries between Moscow and St. Petersburg,president Guy Young said sales have slowed down for the 2015 season.
“Whatever positive exposure Russia received from the Olympics in Sochi has been offset by political tensions with Russia over a variety of issues, including Ukraine,” Young said via e-mail.
At Boston-based Road Scholar, which operates educational tours, senior vice president of programs JoAnn Bell said via e-mail through a spokeswoman that Russia trip enrollment was up “rather dramatically” in 2012, 2013 and early 2014 -- then “declined across the board” by about 12% after the troubles in Ukraine began. Enrollments for 2015 are showing a slight decrease, Bell said.
Russian government figures show 286,551 Americans visited in 2012, of whom 179,763 were considered tourists. In 2013, the figure rose to 305,954 Americans, of whom 197,334 were considered tourists.
Even among countries at peace with their neighbors, post-Olympic doldrums are common. The classic cycle is that Olympic boosters paint pretty pictures of the attention that the games will bring; the host country spends billions and wrestles with logistics; then the games end, the world looks away; and tourism fails to jump as dramatically as forecast. Sometimes visitor numbers pick up more in following years, sometimes not.
Salt Lake City, host of the 2002 winter Olympics, did grow from 2.8 million skier-days and $4 billion tourism spending in 2001 to 4.2 million skier days and $7.6 billion in spending in 2012. Following the 2012 London Summer Olympics, a 2013 British government study found a 1% increase in international visitors and 4% increase in spending.
But Russia’s post-Olympic situation is more complex than most -- in part because the country’s tourism industry was growing fast before the games; in part because of leader Vladimir Putin’s conflicts with other countries; in part because Putin spent an estimated $50 billion building up a destination (Sochi) that hasn’t wowed global travelers.
A thousand miles south of Moscow and about 300 miles southeast of Crimea, Sochi sits along the Black Sea, an hour’s drive from skiing. But the city’s airport gets few direct flights from the rest of Europe and the Russian visa-application process can be frustrating and time-consuming for Americans. (It certainly was for me in the run-up to my visit in early 2013.)
In a travel alert updated Oct. 23, the U.S. State Department warns travelers to beware the “unpredictable” situation along the border between Russia and Ukraine.
Besides looking at inbound travelers to Russia, the European Travel Commission report also probed Russian travel to the rest of Europe, forecasting a drop next year after two decades of strong growth. That could mean less income for European destinations, which tallied nearly 32 million arrivals from Russia in 2013.
This story was updated at 4:45 p.m. Nov. 6 to add information from Uniworld and Road Scholar.