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Sunday, July 20, 2014

Travel to Russia?

Well, it looks like I won’t be pitching the story of my Trans-Siberian journey through Russia anytime soon. Given the events that have taken place in Ukraine since February, international tourism to Russia has plummeted, as has demand for information about Russian travel.

2013 was a blockbuster year for international tourism to Russia. Rosturizm, the state tourism agency, was quoted in The Wall Street Journal as saying numbers were up nearly four percent, reaching 2.7 million international visitors. Russia was even making headway into the U.S. market, attracting 200,000 Americans (including me) last year. That’s the highest number since 2008.

And it looked like the increases were going to continue, given the impetus provided by the Sochi Olympics. But then, the Ukraine crisis began shortly after the Games ended.  After the annexation of Crimea by Russia, the impact on tourism was apparent. Cruise lines and tour operators started cancelling stops in Russia. Ivan Shirkov, Senior Sales Specialist at Travel All Russia, one of the top international inbound tour operators to Russia, reports bookings in March and April were down 200 percent from 2013. Alexander Maklyarovsky, head of incoming tourism at Moscow-based KMP Group, said he expected overall tourism numbers for the summer to be down by 30 percent. SPB Tours, which organizes visits in St. Petersburg (more than 650 miles from Kiev), reported reservations had fallen almost 50 percent by June, compared to the same period last year.

And now, given the international outrage over the downing of Flight 17, even fewer people are opting to travel to Russia. It’s not really a matter of safety, even though the State Department has posted travel warnings. But those focus mainly on the parts of Russia bordering Ukraine.

Instead, people are opting out for political reasons and are boycotting with their pocketbooks. Of course, fall and winter are not prime times for Russian tourism, so the question may become how all of this will impact travel into 2015. Shirkov says it is too soon to tell if the skies will continue to darken. The answer may depend on the continuing political fallout from the latest tragedy.

Developing Coverage: More political implications; interviews with Russian hoteliers and tour operators

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